Time wears away at memory, it leaves behind what was important, and you were happy. That is what remains.
The world of the Tide Child trilogy by R.J. Barker is bleak. But it’s also full of found family, people who love against all odds, wonder, and ultimately provide hope for the future.
The Concept of TheTide Child Trilogy
The vast majority of this trilogy takes place at sea. But not on ordinary wooden sailing ships. These are ships made from the literal bones of sea dragons, giving the individual books their name: The Bone Ships, Call of the Bone Ships, and The Bone Ship’s Wake. The story centers on one particular ship, the Tide Child, a ‘black’ ship whose crew consists of prisoners condemned to sail until they die.
The Tide Child is part of the Fleet from the Hundred Islands, forever at war with the Gaunt Islands. This is a brutal world. Many children are born with health problems. But they’re the lucky ones because first-born children from mothers who survive their birth are sacrificed to provide magical “corpse-lights” for the bone ships. The ruling class, the Bern, are all women who have proven themselves capable of bearing multiple healthy children, and just under them are the Kept, men who have proven themselves capable of giving the Bern healthy children. Then there is Fleet, whose shipwifes, the mostly female commanders of the boneships, are highly honored. For the rest, it’s subsistence living.
However, the war is beginning to stall on both sides because the bone ships are being destroyed and the dragons that provided their frames have been gone for eons. The coming end of the bone ships is seen as horrible to those in power. But not by our main characters on the Tide Child, especially the shipwife, who wants an end to this endless war.
The Characters of the Tide Child
The reader’s guide to this world is Joron Twiner, a simple fisher who was condemned to death because he dared win a duel with the shipwife whose carelessness resulted in the violent death of Joron’s father. Joron’s grieving and aimless when first assigned to the Tide Child, until the arrival of their new shipwife: Lucky Meas.
Lucky Meas is one of those characters who jump off the page.
When she turned, he recognized her, knew her. Not socially, not through any action he had fought as he had fought none. But he knew her face–the pointed nose, the sharp cheekbones, the weathered skin, the black patterns drawn around her eyes and the scintillating golds and green of her cheeks that marked her as someone of note….Seen her standing on the prow of her skip, Arakeesian Dread, named for the seas dragons that provided the bones for the ships and had once ben cut apart on the warm beach below them.
Meas is bold, dynamic, confident, has skirted death all her life, and she’s also the carrier of many secrets of the ruling class. She gained her name “Lucky” because, as a child, she was a firstborn and thus due to be sacrificed. But the tide came in, pulled her away, and then deposited her back alive and unharmed.
But it’s Joron’s story that anchors the readers. He’s lost at first, resentful, grieving.
But in the restless night his sleep had been troubled by thoughts of his father and thoughts of another life, not a better one, not an easier one, but a sober one, one without shame. One in which he did not feel the pulls of the Sea Hag’s slimy hands trying to drag him down to his end. One of long days at the wing of a flukeboat, singing of the sea and pulling on the ropes as his father glowed with pride at how well his little fisher boy worked the winds. Of long days before his father’s strong and powerful body was broken as easily as a thin varisk vine, ground to meat between the side of his boat and the pitiless hull of a boneship.
Meas gives Joron a purpose and a chance to be a part of Fleet, albeit on a black ship of the condemned. Eventually, Joron becomes a leader in his own right, despite suffering one emotional loss after another. He holds onto hope and his strange connection to the sea dragons and the magic of his song.
The Plot of the Tide Child
Without giving away too much, the plot of the first novel, The Bone Ships, centers on the race to find the first new sea dragon seen in generations. Meas believes they’ll eventually have to kill the dragon to prevent more bone ships from being made. Joron’s not so sure. He’s drawn magically to the dragons, the same as he’s drawn magically to the guilliame, a bird-like being who has the power to summon wind. The books include sea battles with ruthless raiders and horrifying sea creatures, armed battles on land, political maneuvering when friends become enemies, a mutiny, and, finally, the freeing of dragons who’ve been imprisoned for eons.
The Tide Child deckchildren (as they’re known in the Fleet) become a found family as they face all these dangers together. Some redeem themselves. Others die never changing. And, some, sadly, die in battle or are murdered. Like Joron, I came to love all the deckchildren, even the difficult and murderous ones.
As someone who served time aboard regular Coast Guard cutters and a tall ship, the nautical details felt authentic to seagoing vessels, though altered since the bone ships are unique.
If nautical battles, sea monsters, and rebel crews are your thing, this is a story you need.
Why You Should Read It
As mentioned above, this is a found family story, a story of one ship, one crew, defying the odds to reach for hope in a world in which casual brutality rules and the only people you can trust are your crew and, sometimes, not even them. The good are not always rewarded but there is honor in sacrifice for the greater good.
In the end, it’s a story of a search for hope in the face of terrible odds, and the lengths people will go to protect family. It’s one of those stories whose characters and storyworld come alive. I’ve read it through twice not and it offers something new on each re-reading.