Review: Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens

ravenscover

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.

The Demons We See Review

My friend and fellow writer, Krista D. Ball, just released her newest book, and first in a new series, The Demons We See.

This book. This fuckin’ book. I knew it was gonna be good and I’m in love with the cover. Look at the cover. Love it. Anyways, my thoughts on the story itself. The narrative itself is lighter. That’s not a bad thing. It sets things up with its basic premise of “a rebellion is building among slaves.” From there, it delves into the lives and interactions of the main characters. The interactions between the characters is fun. Everyone has their own little quirks but all share a love of snark and sass (just a matter of how much). Friendships and romance build up in a way that feels wonderfully natural while this big war brews in the background. Lex and Dodd come into their own once they get their hats. Allegra has a nice arc that ends in the place you hoped for. And Stanton is there being wonderful and charming and heroic.

I’d say the two biggest aspects to note about the story is the use of various mental health conditions and the topic of identity. The effects of fear and anxiety are on full display, there’s talk of PTSD in a realistic way, there’s a huge point about gender identity with Lex and that was done very, very well and felt real. Choices and consequences and grief and all of it feels very genuine and well done.

And as I write this, the next two books aren’t out and it’s THE WORST. But if you like snappy dialogue and magic and want a world that feels familiar but different and a different sort of adventure in politicking, read this book. You will love it.

In addition, if you love anything Musketeers, you’ll definitely love Lex and Dodd and Stanton. And I know for a fact that if you like Dragon Age Inquisition, it will pique your interest. And seriously, the dialogue is so good.

A Demon in the Desert Reviews – Some Favorite Snippets

I figured that with a combined total of 8 reviews between Amazon and Goodreads that I’d share some of my favorite pieces of each. All but two at the moment are from kickstarter backers, but I’m still excited that anyone has taken the time to review at all. I’m giving a name, whether they were a backer, and where the review came from.

Steph Lehenbauer was nice enough to do a review for her column over at Rock and Hill Studio (and posted a short version on goodreads and Amazon). My favorite bit from her review says, “Grimluk, the main character, is an intriguing guy. He’s an orc, but a nice one. A friendly giant. I always love these sorts of characters. (Hagrid springs to mind.) He’s also plenty bad-ass. Early in the book is a scene in which he pistol whips some zombies, always good fun. He has a very honorable sort of character that I enjoyed; he’s kind of the anti anti-hero. He’s Captain America in the Hulk’s body, which was a fun combo.

“The supporting characters are a fun bunch, and you get a good feel for their different personalities and a bit of their backgrounds. I really enjoyed reading it, and the final battle had me with goosebumps and giggles (as an avid D&D player, I was picturing my group and I in the same situation and it was magnificent).” – Samantha, kickstarter backer via Amazon

“I have to say I found this a fun, action-oriented, pulpy read that’s great brain candy. It features a diverse cast of interesting weirdos, and the underexplored weird west genre is celebrated fully within it’s pages. I’m excited for the further adventures of Grimluk!” – Pope, kickstarter back via Amazon. This was also his entire review haha.

“This is Ashe’s first novel, and it’s a very promising first effort. I love the Grimluk character, and I love the setting. It’s a post apocalyptic wasteland loaded with monsters and demons. This fits into the ‘Weird Western’ genre, as it’s basically a western storyline. However, it’s also loaded with elves, orcs, and magic, so there are fantasy elements too. There’s also horror, so we get a blending of several genres.” – Quentin, backer via goodreads.

I can’t remember reading any Westerns before, but I’m glad that my first one was a Weird Western. The concept of this book grabbed me the moment I heard about it, so much so that it became the first project I ever backed on Kickstarter. Nice deconstruction of fantasy tropes. There’s orcs, humans, dwarves, and elves, and yet each of the characters felt like they had personalities of their own, independent of common fantasy race characteristics.” – Ariel, backer via goodreads.

Another aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was its general tone and subtle/dry sense of humor. No, it’s not a “comedy,” but there were some spots that garnered chuckles from me. I think my favorite line is still (the understated),”I hate ghouls. They’re so…tedious.” And I have to say that I can see that as being the truth, and I’ll probably consider that every time I see a ghoul in a story from here on out.” C, backer via goodreads (and better known as wilburwhateley for tumblr folks).

I really enjoyed the fight at the end. I was hoping there was something big to happen to warrant the amount of time spent on investigation. Ashe certainly delivered on that. I also really liked how everything was connected in the end and even though the ‘battle’ was won in the end, there was so much tragedy that it didn’t really feel like they had. I really like when books do that, because the ‘everything worked out and everyone is happy’ type of ending get a little boring sometimes.” – Heather, backer via goodreads.

The protagonist was likeable and interesting, being a Hellboyish “big scary guy with enormous gun that is actually very nice once you know him”. All the action scenes were cool and the little horror stories through the book were deliciously creepy.” – Felipe, via goodreads.

Most of the reviews have been 3-star, and I’m pretty pleased with that (couple of 3.5s, a 4, and a 5 as well). The full reviews were very constructive and I appreciated it a lot. I actually ended up talking with Heather more in-depth after she volunteered on facebook to read the short story I was working on for submission to a magazine and some of the perceived harshness of her full review was altered. The biggest thing I’m happy about is how well received the characters were and that, despite what could be counted as a rough start, everyone seems to be fully on board for seeing more of Grimluk.

And boy oh boy, you’re gonna see a lot more of him in the next one.

Site Update + Book Review

So, just a little update on the site. I added a Recommended Reads section. It’s mostly filled with authors right now, but there are a few specific books. I’ll add to it as I go along. I might add a section for Indie Books and one for big-name books as well, if anyone’s interested. For now, it’s all indie folks. And speaking of which…

I just finished Christopher Ruz’s Rust: Season One. It’s a horror serial series released in episodes and then collected into one volume once the season is finished. Ruz is currently working on the third season, with One and Two being out and available on Amazon. This is a spoiler-free review. And it’s pretty simple:

Rust Season One cover

It is amazing. It’s got this wicked Lovecraft feel, with a big ol’ side of the Yellow King, freaky disease and infestations, and disturbing, visceral, brutal violence. It’s weird and unsettling in all the right ways. You connect with the characters fairly easily. The shock and confusion Kimberly feels upon waking in Rustwood is quite palpable. And it’s so terribly, hideously clear that there is nothing natural or normal about the town. There are things hidden everywhere. Unseen horrors in every shadow and person. Ruz can go from creepy to squeamish in a heartbeat. The prose is great. The story is tight and beautiful. Absolutely amazing stuff. Must-read for any horror fan.