Review: The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

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.

The Death of a Dragonfly

Dyed he is with the
Colour of autumnal days,
O red dragonfly.
Hori Bakusui

It was an accident. Still, if I’d accidentally killed a human I’d have been jailed for murder. I’m often killing midges, greenflies, flies, as I cycle down the Guild Wheel along the Ribble to Brockholes Nature Reserve. Not on purpose of course – they just have a terrible habit of getting in my eyes, in my mouth, down my top. It’s said there were more flying insects before cyclists, cars, climate change…

I’m not sure why killing a dragonfly somehow seems worse than killing all those tiny things. I didn’t even see him. I was too busy thinking about the fantasy novel that I was planning to set in a marshland and how the flora and fauna of Brockholes, as a wetland nature reserve, might inspire me.

Thinking not listening. There was just a buzzing at my neck and a kind of crackling against my skin. Without thinking I swatted at it compulsively, then stopped in a panic, fearful of what I’d done. Looking down, for a moment I felt relief, seeing what looked like a twig before I realised it was a ruddy abdomen. Severed from it a furred red-brown thorax, two cobwebby filmy wings, and a head with two huge dark red globular eyes and three small eyes that, between them, didn’t see me coming.

I didn’t know what he was right then, that he was a he, or a common darter. Only that I’d killed a dragonfly. I laid the broken pieces at the side of the cycle way with an apology to dragonfly kind and rode onward more slowly, more aware of other ruddy darters rising from where they were basking on the path. After I’d arrived, locked up my bike, they haunted me for the short period I was there. Flying in front of me, landing on the wooden walkways and handrails.

One, in particular, caught my eye. Beholden by the huge round portals of his eyes I drowned in the utter inadequacy of not knowing what he was thinking. Did he know I was a murderer? Did he know what I was? Could he sense my awkward reaching? My overall impression was one of curiosity. That it seemed likely he was thinking dragonfly thoughts distant from my own – trying to place this gigantic monster with its small eyes within his brief sunlit world of eating and flying and mating.

Dragonflies are old. The oldest fossils date back to the Carboniferous period – 350 million years ago. They spend most of their lives as nymphs, living for up to four years in muddy waters. They then crawl up the stem of a plant and shed their nymph-skin, emerging as dragonflies, leaving behind the exuvia. In the brief six months of their adult life they feed on smaller flying insects and find a mate, in an acrobatic display forming a spectacular mating wheel, then afterwards the female lays her eggs on the leaves of plants or in the water. Death follows shortly and the life cycle begins again.

It’s impossible to know if that dragonfly had fulfilled his life’s purpose before I killed him. And, of course, in that all-too-human way that has reduced the earth and its creatures to resources, I’m searching for a meaning, like nature is here to teach us lessons. I can’t help it. That’s human nature.

And it’s pretty obvious, slow down, listen, maybe just maybe I’m heading off on the wrong path trying to write a fantasy novel about an imaginary marshland when our existing wetlands need our voices. Making up new creatures when it may be more valuable to introduce people to Sympetrum striolatum ‘common darter’, Sympetrum sanguineum ‘ruddy darter’, Anax imperator ‘emperor dragonfly’.

This is leading me to think that, rather than writing second world fantasy, I might be best off writing a novelset in this landscape, but further back in time. Not only before the wetlands, the marshes, the peat bogs, the lakes, were drained off, but before the people lost their spiritual relationship with the land.

I’ve long been drawn to the archaeological evidence for the ancient marsh-dwellers in my local area. During the Romano-British period they were known as the Setantii ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ but had lived here far longer. Here, on Penwortham Marsh (now drained) and not far from the river Ribble (now moved) they had a Bronze Age Lake Village evidenced by the remains of a wooden platform, dug-out canoes, a bronze spearhead, 30 human skulls, and skulls of aurochs and deer. There were numerous other settlements such as those beside the great lakes Marton Mere and Martin Mere (now drained), wooden trackways such as Kate’s Pad, and the (now lost) Port of the Setantii.

If I was to write about that time, rather than making up critters and magic and gods and monsters, I would be able to draw upon the real magic of an animistic and shamanistic culture rooted in a lived relationship with the ‘water country’ – its reeds and rushes, its wetland birds, its dragonflies and damselflies. With the spirits of the ancestors, gods we know throughthe Romans, such as Belisama and Nodens, and those who are unknown such as the goddess I know as Anrhuna, Mother of the Marsh.

That dragonfly was one of her children perhaps. She who has been here as the marshland since, at least, the thaw of the Ice Age and thousands of years of water country, these last four centuries of its draining off, and is still here in the last remnants preserved by wetland nature reserves such as Brockholes.

Would it be too very human to read, in an unlucky accident, a message from a goddess?

O red dragonfly,
Colour of autumnal days,
Dyed he is with the

Mother of the Marsh
Returned to mud and water
Rest well O red one.

***

Those who follow this blog will note this event has led me to returning to its old name ‘From Peneverdant’. This was the name of my hometown of Penwortham in the Doomsday Book and signals a homecoming from an exodus through Welsh mythology and Annwn. It makes sense in relation to my lifelong dedication to Gwyn, here, in January.

 

Brigantia Stone

Brigantia Stone Earlier in January I dreamt the Oak and Feather Grove were holding a celebration on the West Pennine Moors around a sandstone monument carved with a goddess figure rooted in the earth drawing up its energy to combine with shining rays of sunshine. I knew this was a ‘Brigantia Stone.’

Today is the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, which is connected to the goddess Brighid or Bride. In Scottish mythology she is imprisoned in a mountain by the Cailleach throughout winter and escapes her prison in spring, bringing new growth and regeneration. In Wales she is known as Ffraid and this festival is Gwyl Ffraid.

Here in Northern England she is known as Brigantia. Her name is Brythonic and means ‘High One.’ She was the warrior goddess of the Brigantes tribe, whose tribal confederation dominated the North until the Roman Invasions. I associate Brigantia with high places, locally with the West Pennine Moors and in particular Great Hill.

Great Hill from Brindle

Great Hill viewed from Brindle

In contrast to Brighid, whose stories and roles as a poet, smith and healer are well documented, we know comparatively less about Brigantia. Seven inscriptions exist to her across Northern England and Southern Scotland. She is equated with Victory, and on a statue with Minerva in warrior form, holding a spear and a globe of Victory and wearing a Gorgon’s head.

In my experience, Brigantia is a goddess of the wild harshness of the high hills. A warrior for certain and a goddess of the all-consuming fire of the Awen, the hammer beat of creation and a forger of souls. She’s the first goddess I met. Because she’s a poet and we share a fiery irascible temperament I thought she would become my patroness.

I was wrong and the reason behind this was a difficult one to learn. I worked very closely with Brigantia for two years whilst completing a fantasy novel. It was about a fire magician who, in order to bring down capitalism, made a pact with fire elementals which resulted in his near destruction of the world and death in the flames by which he made his pact. With my anti-hero a part of me burnt and was consumed.

After completing the novel I realised it was too dark and incomprehensible to publish. I’d wasted two years, wasn’t cut out to be a fantasy writer and and I’d lost my trust in Brigantia.

The death of my novel left a void. And into it stepped my true god. Perhaps this was Brigantia’s plan. I needed to learn the dangers of working with the untrammelled Awen; fire in the head, pure imagining, without relation to this world or the realities of the Otherworld, to which Gwyn ap Nudd opened the gates.

Afterward I resented her. Because I’d sold my car and could no longer drive to the Pennines we also became physically distanced. In spite of this, looking down on my valley from the surrounding hills, in the fire of the Awen, she has continued to be a presence in my life. I still honour her as the warrior goddess of the North. But we rarely speak in person.

My dream of the Brigantia Stone came as a surprise, even though Brigantia is in many ways a patroness of the Oak and Feather grove. I experienced the calling to redraw the stone for our Imbolc celebration (which I’d sketched in my diary) in colour, as a Bardic contribution to the grove and for Brigantia as an offering on her festival day. It came out perfectly first time, so well I decided to make copies for each member of the grove.

Lynda has suggested we take a grove walk to find the stone on the West Pennine Moors. Whether it ‘really’ exists on the moors, or in their dreamscape, I’m not certain. However, I do know it is the time to acknowledge and accept Brigantia’s role and place in my life.

Brigantia Altar