Review: The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker

The sea dragons are returning, and Joron Twiner’s dreams of freedom lie shattered. His Shipwife is gone and all he has left is revenge.

Leading the black fleet from the deck of Tide Child Joron takes every opportunity to strike at his enemies, but he knows his time is limited. His fleet is shrinking and the Keyshan’s Rot is running through his body. He runs from a prophecy that says he and the avian sorcerer, the Windseer, will end the entire world.

But the sea dragons have begun to return, and if you can have one miracle, who is to say that there cannot be another? 

Publication details: 28 September 2021, by Orbit. Review copy provided by the publisher

Rating: 5/5

Review

I’ve been putting this review off for a few days because I wasn’t sure where to start with how much I loved this book. Anyone who has read the first two books in the series – The Bone Ships and Call of the Bone Ships – will know what to expect, but Barker really took it up a notch in this finale. I don’t typically get outwardly emotional about books, but The Bone Ship’s Wake left me open-mouthed and a little teary.

We pick up where Call of the Bone Ships left off, with Joron as the new shipwife of The Tide Child, and desperate to get Meas back from her captors. The synopsis paints this as a revenge story, but in my opinion it’s much more nuanced than that – the book is ultimately about about Joron coming to terms with what it means to be a leader and how to weigh up what is necessary, what is right, and the consequences of one’s actions. We also return to a number of the other themes threaded throughout the series – courage, duty, and finding hope and light in the darkness. Joron has no idea who he can trust as friends become enemies and enemies become allies, but there is still a focus on finding meaning and solace in relationships with others despite all the treachery and betrayal the Tide Child’s crew face.

Those who came to the series for the naval battles also won’t be disappointed; there is plenty of action, particularly in the first part of the book, including a terrifying encounter with a sea kraken that had me on the edge of my seat. My biggest concern with the first two books, and the reason I didn’t give them five stars, is because I found the pacing could drag a little, but that’s not the case here – the story moves along at a perfectly balanced pace. There is always some event unfolding, but readers are also given time to soak in the world-building and themes that Barker has layered throughout the series. The action scenes are great, but I also love the little details, such as the uniqueness of the flora and fauna (which goes beyond the dragons and the guillame), and the subtle shifts in language that mark the Hundred Isles as a matriachal society in all aspects of its culture.

If you’ve read to this point in the series (which, this is definitely not a book that stands alone) you’ll know not to expect a happy ending, but the conclusion is appropriately bittersweet and, most importantly feels right for the characters that we, as readers, have gone on this journey with. Thank you, R.J. Barker.

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Review: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss… with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

Publication details: 13 October 2021, by Erewhon. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I have been a fan of C.L. Polk since I read Witchmark late last year, and she lived up to my expectations here: The Midnight Bargain is my favourite of her works to date.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, though there were definitely moments where I found myself enraged on Beatrice’s behalf regarding her treatment. The premise of this book is that sorceresses have their magic suppressed when they get married, to prevent the risk of their future unborn children being possessed by spirits during pregnancy and turned into dangerous monsters. Which sounds horribly dystopia-esque, but this book is actually a secondary world regency fantasy, where the focus is on a few individual women trying to find a way out of such a fate and continue to pursue their interests as Mages (a mission complicated by society’s obsession with marriage as a way to bolster a family’s fortunes). It’s not the tone I was expecting, but it really worked for the purposes of this book, as it showed how the subjugation of women becomes ingrained in society in part by robbing individual women of their agency and stopping them from collaborating to end their own oppression.

Beatrice is a determined (if occasionally reckless) character, and I found it rewarding to follow her journey throughout the book. I particularly liked her friendship with Ysbeta, Ianthe’s sister. The synopsis paints them as rivals, but they quickly realise that they have a mutual interest best achieved through cooperation and collaboration, which is a much more interesting story – proving yet again that female friendships make everything better. Her relationship with Ianthe had an unfortunate air of insta-love about it, and it took me a while to warm to him as he, too, was forced to slowly let go of his assumptions about women’s ability to wield magic. (I gave the insta-love somewhat of a pass in this book as it was at least necessary for the plot to proceed – and by the end I was totally rooting for them).

Otherwise, I found the magic system fascinating – after their training, a sorcerer binds themselves to a spirit who helps them wield magic, but they must offer something as part of a bargain in return. Nadi, Beatrice’s chosen spirit, is a fun addition to the cast with her witty commentary on everyone they meet and steadfast determination to put some of the more smug male villains in their place.

The Midnight Bargain is an excellent addition to the feminist fantasy genre, which speaks to current issues around women’s bodily autonomy in a relevant way while still managing to remain lighthearted and fresh.