The Bone Ships is the first book in the Tide Child trilogy by R. J. Barker. It follows the story of Joron Twiner, who is introduced as the nineteen-year-old alcoholic shipwife of Tide Child, a ship of the dead, on which all the shipmates have been sentenced to death.
The ships are built from the bones of long-dead sea dragons called Arakeesians. Those belonging to the fleets of the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islanders (who are permanently at war over the dragon bones) are bone white and their life and luck is sustained by corpse lights – the souls of first born children. The death ships are black and their ostracisation is marked by a lack of corpse lights.
The book begins with Joron losing the two-tailed hat marking him as shipwife to Lucky Meas Gilbryn. Meas is the daughter of Thirteenbern Gilbryn, the matriarch who rules the Hundred Isles on account of having birthed thirteen children. Meas is renowned as lucky because she is a first born who escaped sacrifice yet she has been sentenced to a death ship and it seems her luck has run out.
Thus begins a unique and original adventure story centred on the relationship between Joron and Meas. From the beginning Meas wears the boots (although Joron does get his own boots eventually…) and her role is to pull Joron, who she makes deck keeper, and the equally messy crew of sentenced criminals together to hunt the first Arakeesian to be seen in the seas for countless years.
The cast of characters is rich and colourful from the dark-skinned Joron to Meas with her grey red and blue streaked hair to the toothless madwoman Garriya to the gentle voiced courser, Aelerin, who navigates the ship by mysterious symbols and never shows their face from beneath their hood.
From the outset we have the feeling of being firmly embedded in an other world with its own myths and culture. One of the deities is Skearith, the dismembered God-Bird, whose eye is the sun and whose spine forms the mountains. We also have the Maiden, Mother, and Hag. The Sea Hag holds paramount place amongst the sailors who are keenly aware of the threat of entering her arms in the depths. They daub their hands in red and blue paint and daub it on the keel to win her favour before battle. The ‘Hag’s curse’ is the name for sea sickness and ‘Hag’s tits’ is the most popular swear word.
Barker shows an incredible inventiveness with his sea creatures. The beakwyrms, pink intestine-like beings with rows of serrated teeth stretching into the darkness of their throats, surf the foam behind the ships. Having a large following of beakwyrms is sign of a ship’s speed and prestige. Then there are the longthresh who devour anyone who falls over board and the bone-munching boneborers.
One of the most haunting characters for me was the ship’s Guillame, the wind-talker, a bird-mage who controls the winds. According to the legends the Guillame were a gift from Skearith. Yet they are treated badly, taken from their nests, their eyes put out so they remain subordinate to the fleet. Their magic, easily drained, exacts a large toll, and must be recuperated from the wind towers.
Tide Child’s Guillame is curiously insubordinate and wears a mask to cover its eyes. At the outset its white robes are filthy, it is louse-ridden, stinking, losing its white quills of feathers. Yet with Joron’s kindness, bringing it a needle and thread to fix its robes and other items it regains its dignity. Its wind magic is astounding and there is something very visceral and real in Barker’s description of the pressure in Joron’s ears when it enhances the winds to drive the ship or a gallowbow bolt.
The Bone Ships is a beautifully written lyrical hymn to the other based around a cast of othered people in a unique other world. The mythos is deep and I have a feeling that, like the Arakeesian, of whom we only catch a glimpse with its huge flippers and multitude of eyes, in this book we only see the surface. I can’t wait to read the second part of the trilogy, which will be out in November.