Review: Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens

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This is going to be a bit of a different kind of review for me. Normally, when reading something by someone I know, mentioning that doesn’t matter. I am dedicated to giving honest reviews. It’s an important part of reading and writing. I expect honesty and give it in return. Scott’s a friend. He even sent me a signed copy last year. We both write orcs from different directions. We have similar political views. He was supportive of me in the early days and he’s someone I’m glad to know and call friend.

And that’s why I was utterly terrified I would hate A Gathering of Ravens.

See, this book gets pegged as grimdark. And I don’t really like grimdark. Grim and dark atmospheres are good and very necessary sometimes. I’m sure some folks could tell me my opinion on the grimdark genre is wrong and I don’t get it but I’m deep enough into the Fantasy community as a fan and a writer that I seem the various comments and reviews of grimdark works. I’ve seen reviews of this book that have decried it as a grimdark trash and grimdark gold. I was afraid to read this and hate it and hurt my friend.

But I didn’t.

Here’s the thing. Grimnir is an utter bastard. He wears that with pride. Scott wrote Grimnir to be the bastard child of Tolkien’s orcs and Howard’s Conan. He’s bow-legged and long-armed like the orcs, but built of corded muscle and iron like Conan. Grimnir revels in his monstrous nature. He is a reaver, a thief, a slayer. Again, Grimnir is a bastard. But he has honor. The first time we meet him is in a cave, his cave, where he holds to the traditions of Norse hospitality. If Grimnir swears an oath, no force on Earth can make him break it. If he says you’ll live, you’ll live. If he says you have until sunrise, mind your time.

The world Grimnir inhabits is based in history. The 10th and 11th centuries were dark times, yes, but there was good. Etain stands as a beacon in that regard. Especially the farther into the story you get. The more she learns about the real world, the more she grows. And she grows strong and stays true to her ideals. She keeps her hopes, sharing them.

I would even venture to say that the morality in this book is closer to black and white than shades of gray. Grimnir is the gray while Bjarki and Etain are the black and white respectively. And sure, there are sprinkles of gray in any character. If you’re writing people, even if your aim is black and white, you can’t escape some mingling.

Now, through all of that morality and through the historical aspects, Scott weaves in a plethora of folklore and mythology throughout. The “Oathbreaker” in the middle of the book was something of a surprise in that regard. And I loved it. I could’ve read an entire book where our dynamic duo deals with the Oathbreaker. The magical aspects that show up through the book sang to me. Dwarves, traveling the branches of Yggdrasil, the west elves, and the kaunur, Grimnir’s people. They were all wonderfully done and enjoyable. It felt both like a historical fantasy and a secondary world.

To further the aspect of this being a deep review by someone I call friend, I’d like to take a moment to hit some points I’d seen in other reviews. Some folks were put off by Grimnir’s language towards Etain, and women in general, but he’s equally as vulgar towards men. Grimnir is literally a creature kept alive by rage and movement. His behavior is to be expected. I’d also seen comments that Etain should’ve been a gay man. I don’t get that. In fact, Etain’s presence was a beautiful foil to Grimnir. And the fact that this beast would be befriended by a filthy “hymn-singer”, even be shown loyalty and kindness by another woman to boot, was something I felt helped the story quite a bit. That’s not to say a gay man couldn’t have done that, but Etain starts out as a small, fearful person in the way only an abused orphan woman could be. She just fit.

Overall, the book is both pulpy and refined. Scott really does love to ride that line between Tolkien and Howard. It’s grim in places, maybe a touch dark, but there remains cores of hope and good. I didn’t finish the book feeling like an empty husk. I can’t say I’ll particularly want to read the whole thing again but I definitely want to see more of Grimnir. I want to see how else he evolves as he moves through history.

If you’re like me and you looked at this book and wondered, “Will I like it? Will it be a grimdark mess with shocks for shocks’ sake?” The answer is maybe and no in that order. I enjoyed it but everyone’s different. Maybe Grimnir really is too much of a prick for your liking. I can’t say but I will say: give it a chance if you’re on the fence. Otherwise, carry on and find something else. Life’s too short to read something you’re not feeling.

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