Why You Need to Read: “The Bone Ships”

The Tide Child #1: The Bone Ships

By: R.J. Barker

Published: September 24, 2019

Genre: Fantasy

            Joron sat opposite the man who had made sure he was condemned to a ship of the dead, and, in so doing, he heard of the miracle that would make him part of a legend, (12: To All Who Serve, Comes A-Calling).

            The speculative fiction genre has gone from limited to selective, and because of this fans have only so much time to read all of the books published by all of the authors. R.J. Barker is one of the many authors whose books I’ve been struggling to make time to read. I’ve heard great things about the author’s trilogy, The Wounded Kingdom, and it’s in my TBR pile. Then, I won an early publication of The Bone Ships, the first book in The Tide Child Trilogy. I was excited, yet skeptical of what to expect from this book besides pirates. Then, the author told me on social media that I should expect, “a different story than other ones I’ve read before.” He was not exaggerating. This book is a fantasy adventure about pirates and warfare, and most of the action and the story occurs at sea, and it’s engrossing, not boring!

            The story follows Joron Twiner, who is about to lose his position of “shipwife,” or master and commander of a ship—“Tide Child,” to Meas Gilbryn, or as many others refer to her, “Lucky” Meas. Meas has a reputation of being one of the “most decorated, the bravest, the fiercest shipwife the Hundred Isles had ever seen,” (p.7). And, she was recently sent to a “ship of the dead”—the “Tide Child”—as a death sentence for a criminal act. “Ships of the dead,” which are typically made of the black bones of an arakeesian—a giant whale as big as a dragon, are operated by “criminal crews.” The crew consist of criminals who’ve committed a crime of some sort and are sentenced to a “black ship” to serve their term until death. In this case, a life of piracy, which will lead to one’s death at sea, at some point in the future. Joron, who starts as a wishy-washy sailor, and Meas, one of the best shipwives of the Hundred Isles, are the last people you would expect to be on a black ship, but they are. And, Meas just won a duel against Joron, which makes her the new shipwife, and Joron’s demoted to “deckkeeper,” or second-in-command. It turns out, Joron losing the duel is the best thing to happen to “Tide Child” because Meas immediately takes control of the crew and slowly transforms them into a presentable crew. Throughout the story, Meas remains a flat character, but she forces the other characters, especially Joron, to develop into the people they are meant to be. 

            The plot of The Bone Ships centers on the reconfiguration of the crew of the “Tide Child.” After Meas becomes shipwife, she makes numerous, but essential, changes within the crew. She reassigns roles, teaches them how to fight, and involve them in sea battle in order to improve their experience and their morale. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, so this training and refashioning take up the majority of the story. There are two subplots. The first focuses on the shift of the “Tide Child’s” goals from protecting the kidnapping of children to tracking down the first arakeesian spotted on the seas in centuries. A race ensues amongst all ships and their crews into locating the arakeesian, sailing as far as the uncharted waters. The second subplot, clues into society and the rules of the setting, which are relevant because they explain how both Joron and Meas ended up on a black ship. Joron’s reason is straightforward; Meas’ reason is more complicated. Both subplots are necessary for the development of both the plot and the characters. 

            The narrative in this novel is told in a sequence of an account told by the protagonist. The story is told from Joron Twiner’s P.O.V. in first person in the past tense. Although the narrative follows the events of Joron after they occur, readers get the stream-of-consciousness and an account of the events he witnessed. There are no passages or chapters of Mea’s account of the events, or any from any of the other characters or the crew. This makes the narrative more engaging (and maybe believable) because an individual’s account of events is based on what feelings they experienced at the location(s) they were at at that time. This type of narration make Joron a reliable narrator, and his account can be followed by the readers. 

            The style R.J. Barker uses in The Bone Ships is split between world-building and naval terminology. The word choice and the language used throughout the narrative presents life in hierarchical society, or at sea. The terminology included in the story is a lesson in sailing and ship maintenance which enhances the narrative and make it more realistic, and it’s based on knowledge, words and maintenance of ships in our world. For someone who knows nothing about sailing or boats (such as myself), this was very informative and helpful to understanding the narrative. In addition, the description of the battles transports readers into the middle of the action, swords, blood and all. The mood of this novel is stormy. Life in the Hundred Isles is attainable through strength, the weak bring down everyone and they have no place in the world. The tone is the competition for survival and recognition amongst those in society, a story that follows Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” to a teed. All of the characters are competing for survival in order to survive in their harsh environment, and strength is the coveted trait. All of the elements used by the author transport the readers to the sea. 

            The appeal surrounding The Bone Ships have been mixed. This is because readers of the author’s first trilogy probably weren’t expecting this change in story type from him. Then, there are readers who are not interested, or were confused by a book about life on a ship. For clarification, I’ll use The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” Fans of the series have stated that that book was their least favorite one because they found the story to be “slow” and “uninteresting.” Not everyone is interested in stories about sailing, and I believe this is why there were some negative reviews from some of the readers. I didn’t mind this story because all of the terminology was explained and action occurred both on land and on sea. The elements of world-building kept my attention as well. Readers who are fans of pirates, Moby Dick and/or sailing will enjoy this book the most. For those who did enjoy The Bone Ships will be pleased to know that Book 2, Call of the Bone Ships, will be released in September 2020. I’m looking forward to reading what happens next. 

            The Bone Ships is a fantasy adventure about pirates and the tracking of a “legendary” whale. The novel is a different experience from what fantasy readers are used to, but the characters and the world-building will hook them into the story and wheel them in the end. R.J. Barker illustrates what life on the seas is really like and why some people are better off staying on land. But, if sentenced to a black ship, then it is the “Tide Child” you’ll want to be on!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5).

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!