A Ritual of Bone offers up a dark blend of fantasy and zombies for readers who like a little something different from both genres.
“Only valour and steel can stand against the rising dead”
“Arnar is a land of warriors, its people as stalwart as the stones themselves. In a land of dark forests and ancient hill forts, a forgotten evil is awoken by curious minds.
The Great Histories and the Sagas say nothing of this evil, long passed from the memory of even the studious scholars of the College. For centuries, the scholars of Arnar have kept these records and preserved the knowledge and great deeds of a proud people. The story of these peoples forever chronicled in the Sagas of the Great Histories.
But now the evil spreads and the dead walk in its wake, terrible creatures roam the night and even the spirits are restless. The Dead Sagas could perhaps be the final chapters of these great records.
Many threads entwine to tell this Saga, interweaving the tales of those who played their part in the search for answers and ultimately their fight for survival. Amid plague, invasion and terror, the inexorable rise of the dead sends a kingdom scrabbling to its knees.
This dark fantasy epic combines dark malign horror and gritty survival adventure as the Dead Sagas unfold in a world where honour and renown is all, where beasts and savages lurk in the wilderness, and where sword, axe and shield is all that stands between the living and the grasping hands of the dead.” – Goodreads blurb
I’d been sitting on A Ritual of Bone for a while. Since September actually. I was excited about reading it because A) I’m all about indie/self-published books; B) I love fantasy; C) I also enjoy a good zombie story. Checking those three boxes meant I wasn’t going to pass this one up.
As the synopsis above indicates A Ritual of Bone is a dark story. Most of it takes place at the edge of “civilization” in a land of forests and mountains, beyond which lie tribes of barbarians. The settled areas along this boundary are not very advanced, mostly towns and small settlements and farms, with wooden motte and bailey style forts and watch towers spread along the border. Further away there are other cities with what seem to be more advanced fortifications and harbors but we don’t get as much detail on them. What we do see away from the border is the port of Anchorage where a mysterious plague has come ashore on one of the ships in the harbor. This plague causes people to hemorrhage out in a gruesome death. There is a wider world we catch glimpses of but not much. It reminds me a lot of the early middle ages, what many refer to (incorrectly) as the Dark Ages. It’s a period centuries after the fall of a great empire whose remnants and artifacts can still be found in ruins.
The story follows multiple points of view. The first is that of a character known only as “the apprentice” who is part of an expedition from The College to study some ruins from that ancient civilization, and whose master is researching ancient rituals about the dead. Then there’s Bjorn, also knows as The Huntsman, who finds himself along the borderland looking for a monster that has been attacking villages and discovers a tribe of cannibals. Arnulf is a lord tasked with the defense of part of the border, whose patrols stumble across an enemy that won’t die. Then there’s Nym, a woman taking care of her younger brother in the nation’s port city of Anchorage.
It took me until I was about twenty percent of the way into it to really get engaged with A Ritual of Bone. Once I did though I was there for the story. I wanted to find out about the origins of this ritual of the dead, and once the zombies started showing up for real I wanted to see how a medieval fantasy world would react and combat them. Then there was that plague in the port of Anchorage…plagues are scary things and I wanted to see how the people reacted to and dealt with it. I wanted to see how the various characters arcs played out and came together.
I was only partially satisfied with regard to any of the above. When the zombies start to appear is where the book gets interesting. Their arrival comes as an understandable shock. The people along the border don’t have a context with which to deal with them and nobody wants to believe the stories they hear from anyone who has encountered one who has escaped the prison of Old Night. The impact they have on the psyche of the soldiers and people along the border is one of confusion and fear. It comes to the fore most notably with Arnulf who is trying to defend the land he is charged with and who also comes to fear what may happen to his family.
The scenes with the zombies are not really scary but they are grim. This is due in no small part to the relationships some of the people have with the newly made undead, and in part to who gets turned into one of these animated corpses. There’s also this sort of in-between stage some go through where they are alive but become more animal than human after being wounded by a zombie. They form packs and hunt the living in a mad hunger to eat flesh. The scenes in the port of Anchorage also kept my interest with the spread of the gruesome plague among the inhabitants. All of this kept me curiously turning pages and starting another chapter to see where things would go.
But, while there was a lot of potential, it just never really clicked with me. There were a number of reasons. First, with the possible exception of Arnulf, none of the characters really had an arc. They were mostly flat. Arnulf goes through some hard times and suffers some emotions during the course of the book but the rest are just kinda there with no real development.
Second, only two of the four main narratives ever really come together. Even then, the characters don’t meet, one just happens to come across where the other once was and discovers what had been going on there. Maybe in a future book in the series the narratives will converge, but in this one it’s like there are four different stories going on, and none have any resolution. There’s never an explanation or hint about how the zombies and the cannibals and the plague tie together. Is the idea that there are three plagues sweeping this land? Something else? And for large swaths of the book two major characters and a few minor ones kinda fall of the radar and their stories just sort of fade away.
Related to the above is the issue of pacing. The pacing was consistent but just didn’t thrill me. When I thought it might pick up the POV would change, steering the book in another direction and slowing back down a little. This would have been OK had there been more story/character arc development and had the narrative come together a little more.
Honestly I feel like I must have missed something in this read. I say that because a number of reviewers and bloggers I follow and respect seemed to have enjoyed A Ritual of Bone and rated it highly. I seem to be in the minority on this one but I just didn’t enjoy it. There was a lot of potential with this book that just didn’t come together. But, as I said many other reviewers felt differently than I did so check out their reviews and decide if you want to give it a go. One of the joys of reading books is we all enjoy different things and what one person hates another absolutely loves. I didn’t hate this one. But I didn’t really love it either.
Note: I was sent a free copy of this book by the author.
2.5 of 5 Stars
Author: Lee C. Conley
Series: The Dead Sagas
Publisher: Wolves of Valor Publications / Indie Published
Publication Date: June 17, 2019
Pages: 384 (in paperback)