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Review: The Tide Child Trilogy by RJ Barker

Nathan’s review of The Tide Child Trilogy.

This review is spoiler free for the entire Tide Child Trilogy

This is a bit of a new review format for me because I usually review individual books, but with my recent interview with RJ Barker, I thought I would revisit and review one of my favorite fantasy trilogies of all time: The Tide Child Trilogy.

The Tide Child trilogy tells the story of Joron Twyner, who is condemned to serve on a Black Ship, or ship of the dead, under the captainship of Lucky Meas Gilbryn. The ship has one mission – to track down the last known sea dragon. What results is an adventure full of pirates, ship battles, and magical creatures.

This is a perfectly paced fantasy trilogy that has a measured plot progression punctuated by intense scenes of battles, violence, and heroism. These action heavy scenes are mixed in with quieter moments of character growth, exploration, and grief. Readers looking for an “all action all of the time” nautical fantasy will not find it here, but Barker elegantly balances the quiet and loud moments for those who like those quiet characters moments in their books.

There are so many elements that work wonderfully in this trilogy. Let’s start with one of my favorite elements – the unique world that Barker brings to life across these three books. From the environment to the various cultures, Barker constructs a world that feels familiar and yet wholly original and brand new. Ecologically, there are not a lot of big, woody trees, causing the people to find another material from which to build their ships. Well, the easiest solution was to build them out of the bones of the dead sea dragons (or arakeesian as they are called). This however eventually became a problem; the peoples of these island nations overhunted the sea dragons for their bones to the extent that the sea dragons have gone extinct – and many of bone ships are breaking down.

Barker is able to expertly weave these ecological circumstances with the international politics that underwrite much of the plot. The extinct sea dragons and decaying ships worry the leaders of the two main island nations because they fear that the other will have a larger and stronger fleet than them, with no way of replenishing their own ships. Thus, when a sea dragon is spotted in the ocean, there is a mad scramble. Both nations want the dragon to add to their own fleet, giving them a huge naval advantage. However, peacekeepers want to find the dragon themselves and kill it so that neither nation gains a military advantage over the other.

Thus, the current environmental situation drives the politics. I really liked how Barker deepened and expanded the politics as the trilogy progressed without ever allowing it to overwhelm the narrative. Too often with fantasy trilogies the first book is unique and fun with just a dusting of politics, but then in later volumes becomes just another court politics fantasy. This doesn’t happen here. Barker never lets up on the creativity and the characters while the shifting political situations and allegiances build and flow.

And since I mentioned characters, I cannot overemphasize how wonderful the characters in these books are. The star of the show is Lucky Meas Gilbryn, one of my all-time favorite fantasy characters. Barker builds Meas as a strong woman while also allowing her to be insecure, rash, and emotional. She doesn’t feel like a stereotype like so many “strong female characters” often do; she is a fully realized person. Her character is made even more interesting by the fact that for much of the trilogy she is kept at arm’s length in the narrative. While Meas is undoubtedly the central character, we usually don’t see the world or plot through her eyes. Instead, our main POV is from Joron, a young man who was a (pretty poor) captain of his own ship before being condemned to serve with Meas. Subsequently, I enjoyed that Meas’ layers got peeled back slowly over the three books, until we eventually start getting chapters from her POV directly.

The rest of the ship’s crew is equally as diverse, lively, and complex. I really like ship or pirate-based fantasies (why are there not more of them!), but they often live and die on the entire cast. Ships as settings are often claustrophobic for readers because we are forced to spend so much time in such a little space. No worries about that here. So many of the Black Ship’s crew, from Farys to Mevans to Solemn Muffaz, bring the world, ship, and crew to life. Anyone looking for a bit more of an expansive story will also find many non-crew characters to love in this trilogy. This story is not entirely restricted to the Black Ship; Barker populates the towns and islands with a series of fascinating characters that you may both love and hate, but will always enjoy revisiting.

I absolutely cannot finish talking about the characters without also bringing up the gullaime. One of Barker’s most creative and wacky creations, the gullaime are humanoid bird creatures that can use magic to control the wind, but they need to visit these special windspires to recharge their magic. There is one central gullaime on the Black Ship that is simultaneously the most endearing and frustrating character in the entire book. In the beginning the gullaime seem like a worldbuilding oddity, but they quickly become central to the trilogy’s mythology, lore, and overarching plot.

Barker also does a lot of other unique things in his world, particularly in how he deals with issues related to sex, gender, and sexuality. This is a world in which society and identity is structured very much unlike our own. I was fascinated by the way Barker was able to subvert many of our gendered and sexual expectations while also creating a world rife with structural inequalities. For example, in regard to gender Barker doesn’t fully create a matriarchal society, but he does gender-flip a lot of gendered language and titles. Ships are gendered masculine (unlike in modern English where ships are usually called “she”) while most of the positions on the ship are gendered feminine (the captain is the “ship wife”, etc.). Additionally, while the world is not necessarily “queer norm”, same-sex sexual relations are encouraged on the ships while “opposite sex” (to speak in a binary for a second) relations are rejected because of the danger of being pregnant on a ship. I guess the point I am trying to make is that Barker’s worldbuilding dives deep into all of the nooks and crannies. Whenever one change is made (such as making the world more gender neutral so that women sailors/pirates are normal) triggers other changes (rules around sexual relations on ship). I always seek this out in my fantasy books; I often see writers making one major change and then considering the cascading social effects of that change. Barker doesn’t fall into this trap, and his world is more coherent, consistent, and lived in for it.

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I don’t want to lead readers astray, so I should point out that this is quite a dark trilogy. Characters are murdered, tortured, abused, sacrificed, etc. A lot of the characters are in pain and dealing with trauma both past and present. So, while there are definite moments of pirate sailing levity, there is also a somber atmosphere that permeates the trilogy. At no point does Barker take it too far; the books never feel gratuitous for the sake of being labeled as “grimdark” or something (and the books do have a moral compass), but at the same time the characters and plot never shy away from the terrible things they must confront and do as part of their mission. The protagonists have noble goals in mind – end war, save their families, etc. – but the lengths required to achieve those goals push them to the ethical edge.

What I love about Barker’s trilogy though is that he contrasts the grim, somber world with moments of hope, joy, and friendship. These books explore the themes of loss and love, despair and joy. Barker confronts the difficulties of being beat down over and over again, and the strength to rise up to fight. Different characters in the books make different decisions about their abilities to actually rise up and fight, and those character journeys are always fascinating. The Bone Ships begins in a world on the precipice of change – the arakeesian are back and could potentially redraw the entire political and military map – and these characters are on a quest to steer the direction of that change. The question is which direction they choose, and how they ultimately achieve those goals.

I have nothing else to say (he says, after 1000+words….) other than this is a fantastic fantasy trilogy. Definitely give this one a shot.

Concluding Thoughts: There is never enough nautical or pirate fantasy, and this trilogy ranks among the best. Barker creates a unique fantasy world full of talking bird creatures, sea dragons, SHIPS MADE OF DRAGON BONES, and fascinating characters. The plot moves swiftly, full of exciting battles on both sea and land, with an intensely emotional concluding volume. Fans of Liveship Traders looking to continue the seafaring high will definitely find a lot to like here!

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