I read and adored RJ Barker’s other series, The Wounded Kingdom, and I had this one high up on my list for my 2020 TBR. I splurged recently on a bunch of audiobooks and I knew that this had to be one of them – I had already waited too long to read this one!
If you follow my reviews you know that I almost always cite my need to get to know the characters before I can care about what else going on. This was different. It was the world-building that sucked me in. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the in-depth grey characters that were delivered in this, but the world was so… surreal and other-worldly it reminded me why I picked up fantasy books so long ago.
Our characters live on ships made of the bones of sea-dragons in a post-apocalyptic world like I’ve never seen before. Lucky Mes has been banished to the Black Ships, the ship of the dead. She conspired to commit treason by making allies of enemies and ending the brutal ritual of child sacrifice. Lucky Mes was made famous by surviving said child sacrifice. It’s said that she caused and then survived a tidal wave defying the custom of slaying the firstborn child of all mothers. Covered in mostly water, the world is dotted with islands that have been at war with each other for so long no one remembers why it started in the first place. Propaganda plagues both the Gaunt Islanders and the 100 islanders alike, each believing the other to be unreasonable barbarians. Lucky Mes hopes to bring the two factions together and find peace between them. Women and men appear to be equals – homosexuality isn’t just normal, it’s the law when on a Black Ship. A man and a woman having sex could create a child and it’s punishable by death.
I found myself loving Lucky Mes and her take-no-shit attitude. She’s incredibly badass but also has a genuinely good purpose and goal, she’s not just a cutthroat asshole like most of those who make up the Black Ships. To be sentenced to the Black Ships you must have committed a crime, and so she’s surrounded by a ton of unsavory characters. This had a grim and foreboding tone most of the time with death lurking around the corner for just about everyone. Joron was really more of our main character, however, and he’s loses his leadership at the very start of the book to none other than Lucky Mes. He’s an alcoholic who sold his maps for more booze, he was picked to be Ship Wife not because he was strong but because he was weak. His crew didn’t want to have a hard-ass leader, so they picked a coward. He had no respect from anyone and has to try and earn it once Lucky Mes takes over.
The world building, as I said earlier, is amazing. There are alien-like bird-people called Windtalkers that can control the weather and the wind. They have their eyes taken from them at birth, they are hunched and sit so completely still they look unnatural and because of that they give everyone on the ship the creeps. Joron and the Tide Child have happened upon a Windtalker that refuses to talk until Lucky Mes…and when he finally does agree to call the wind, it’s the most powerful spell Lucky Mes has ever seen. There are giant eyeless worms that ride the wake of the ships… they bring an unfortunate and brutal end to anyone who falls into the water. This is a world where most women can’t produce children, and many who are born are born with deformities. I could write paragraph after paragraph of how unique and engrossing the world building was, but, that’ll make this review stupidly long.
I didn’t notice how long this book was, I kept turning the page despite how exhausted I was from working all day and coming home to take care of a baby. I just kept fucking reading until 3am when I finally finished. I can’t wait to read the next in a series and that’s saying something because I almost never finish a series anymore.
I don’t read many at-sea adventures, so that was also very refreshing and change of pace for me. The narrator is very good, but also pretty slow. I generally listen at 1.5x but cranked it to 1.8 for this narrator.
TLDR: Incredible other-worldly feel, unique and original races/creatures, fascinating post-apocalyptic landscape and culture. Grey characters, adventure at sea, trying to end a war, and monsters all written with professional prose that will keep you turning pages. Audiobook was excellent.
- Plot: 12/15
- Characters: 13/15
- World Building: 14/15
- Writing: 13.5/15
- Pacing: 13/15
- Originality: 15/15
- Personal Enjoyment 10/10
Final Score: 90.5/100 or 5/5 on Goodreads