by Alex Khlopenko
Once again, I’m facing a conflict of interest – how can you objectively review authors that you published, since I have a monetary and personal interest in their success? (Faber, Pound, and Eliot didn’t bother, though, so there’s that.) I love RJ, he’s a fantastic writer and a huge friend of our mag. I’ll try my best to critique this new book of his – The Bone Ships, on its own merits.
Before proceeding to the main course, I need to explain why I still love playing Skyrim. I’m a kid from a lower-middle-class family from a small town in central Ukraine. I didn’t have many options for exciting childhood, filled with adventures and exciting discoveries. But there were books and games, substitute enough for me at the time. I longed for the feeling of going on an adventure, the one I got as a kid from reading Sabatini’s Captain Blood, O’Brien’s Master and Commander, and Le Guin’s Earthsea. Skyrim brought the same warm and fuzzy sensation of going on an adventure. And it’s not an easy thing to replicate – both in book and video game mediums. With the Bone Ships, I went on an adventure.
Coming on the back of Barker fantasy trilogy “The Wounded Kingdom”, The Bone Ships takes a hard-left turn, and thank the Hag it does. No more Kings, no more feudalism, and succession nonsense that is getting quite stale recently. Welcome to The Hundred Isles – a place that rejects all the previous notions of fantasy, one by one. Patriarchy? Goodbye. Romanization of exploitation? Out the door. Acceptance of hierarchy and authority as the central conflict? Nope. Barker takes every perceived notion of how a secondary fantasy world and subverts them.
The book understands its place in the genre and accepts the past. And this understanding informs the worldbuilding, the characters, and how they relate to the world. It may roughen up some feathers, but remember that we live in a world where it took fifty years (a lot of effort and one beautiful speech) to denounce Campbell and rename the eponymous award.
On the visual side, The Bone Ships offers a grimhope (? I am making this up as we go) approach to everything. Our world is shit and our systems are shit, but we can change them. We have hunted a beautiful creature that is the sea dragon to extinction to use for endless total war, but with enough effort, we can save it. The character comes to terms with their world and aspires to change it, and their world is worth visiting.
The best way to explore this new world is through the protagonist – Joron Twiner.
There are two relationships through which Joron should be explored: his relationship with his dead father and his relationship with the mother figure, or at least female authority figure, his shipwife (captain) Meas.
Joron Twiner by a stroke of luck (or bad luck) became a shipwife of his own ship but he never truly wanted it and naturally wasn’t really good at being one. Before the action begins, he became a drunkard and the shadow of his father looms over him. Long dead but not forgotten, Joron’s father was the one to teach him everything that he knows of the sea. He was a fisher so that wasn’t much. It was enough to become Joron’s moral compass and thus set the expectations of what kind of man Joron should become. This ultimately sentences Joron to constantly live in the looming shadow of his dead father, like and an ever-present undead reminder of his failings and simultaneously a lighthouse of virtue, guiding him to what is right – in this instance, saving the sea dragon and stopping the wars once and for all.
The next relationship is a trademark move from RJ Barker. Joron and Meas, a mother-figure/son relationship. This dynamic has been masterfully explored in “Wounded Kingdom”, but here it takes a more delicate turn. Through his new shipwife, Joron not only explores his relationship with women and a mother figure he never had, he learns of power structures, his relationship with women and other men, and what it means to establish friendship.
This last part was a personal soft spot for me. Whereas the shortcut to the dramatic tension in western literary tradition is family and heartbreaking love, Barker opts out for a more tender, quieter, but nonetheless touching option. Joron’s relationship to everyone on this journey is a platonic one, of friendship and loyalty. Which is a fresh breath in the midst of all the toxicity usually associated with romance in fantasy.
Of course, there were poetically written and masterfully staged battle scenes, tower sieges, fantastical creatures breathing wind into the sails, and giant sea dragons with kind eyes being saved on a regular basis. But Barker never let the spectacle to upstage the emotional core of the book and offered a deeply Lacanian reading into what makes a person the way he is – both in the past and at present. And that is definitely worth the time investment this book requires.
The Bone Ships also offers a separate treat to those inside (or at least knows a wee bit about) Barker’s inner circle. In a tongue-in-cheek fashion, he puts his friends and colleagues into the book and wink-winks at us when we catch it. There is a little egg for you, reader. It’s a sweet and wonderful touch.
For me, the significance of a novel is measured in two aspects: 1. Is it fun; and 2. does it offer literary depth. Barker offers a ton of both. It takes you on an adventure across the high seas and introduces you to a set of character who is a perfect bunch for an endeavor like this and while you’re having fun, it delves into the psychology of modern power, femininity, and friendship. The Bone Ships is a breathtaking adventure and as with the “Wounded Kingdom” before – there’s definitely more to come in the next one.