Book Review: A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (June 20, 2017)
Length: 320 pages
Ambitious in scope and audacious in its execution, A Gathering of Ravens spectacularly weaves together the threads of history and mythological tradition, spiriting readers away on a journey through legend and time. A master storyteller, author Scott Oden has combined elements from Norse and Celtic lore with the richness of the early medieval landscape to create a novel that is epic in every sense; we have bloodshed and triumph, love and loss, tragedy and hope…and yes, we also have an Orc.
Grimnir is the last of his kind. The Anglo-Saxons call him orcnéas, while the Danes name him skrælingr, but most would agree that he is a monster, an evil creature birthed from the earth’s dark depths. But in truth, he is a lot more than that, as the plot expands to reveal his quest for vengeance against Bjarki Half-Dane, the oathbreaker who killed his brother. When two weary followers of Christ unknowingly take shelter in his cave one stormy night, Grimnir kidnaps the younger of them as his hostage, forcing her to be his guide to the land across the sea. Frightened and grieving for her friend now lost to her, Étaín has no choice but to do what her beastly captor says, accompanying him through the Danish wilderness to the Ash Road, a secret passageway which would lead them to England.
However, their journey does not go exactly as planned. Grimnir and Étaín arrive at their destination to find that changes have swept across the country, and the two of them are now outsiders in every possible way. Yet Grimnir remains undeterred in his desire for revenge, and in spite of herself, Étaín also begins to see more than the monster in the Orc. The two of them are now each other’s only ally, with faith and honor ultimately leading them to a shared purpose.
The strength of this book lies in the author’s skill in evoking the spirit and atmosphere of a time gone by. He perfectly captures the life and culture of the people in this era. Throughout the early sections of A Gathering of Ravens, I could practically feel the bitter chill of the Danish hinterlands, sense its sharpness deep within my bones. As the story unfolds, we also got to see the cruelty and injustices of war, the power struggles that result between different groups when their religious beliefs collide. Scott Oden’s forte is clearly his interest and enthusiasm for history; that much can be gleaned from every page of this meticulously crafted novel. However, I also simply adore the fantasy he has injected into the mix, incorporating mythological elements and ancient folklore like the Celtic fairies and even a few allusions to the legend of Beowulf. It is precisely because of this melding of magical factors that makes historical fantasy one of my favorite subgenres.
And of course, there are the Orcs. In his afterword, Oden describes his impetus behind the story’s premise, offering some excellent insight into his process of creating Grimnir. To tell the truth, it gave me an even greater appreciation for this book, knowing how the concept behind this fascinating character was conceived and executed. One thing you can be sure of is that Grimnir is most definitely not your traditional kind of hero. From the start, he was an enigma, brutal yet complex. I loathed his treatment of Étaín at first, and saw him as a villain, but gradually as their journey went on, I began to sympathize with his bloodthirsty quest. Their relationship—especially their transition to becoming eventual allies—was written very well and handled realistically. Along with Étaín, my eyes became open to the Orc’s deeper sense of honor and duty. It may not be as we understand it, but it does go a long way in making Grimnir seem more heroic and worthy of the reader’s support. Non-human protagonists are often tricky to pull off, but the author has shown that they can indeed work, somehow also making it look easy at the same time. While Oden may have set out to redeem the Orc, whether or not he achieved that is going to be up to the individual reader, though personally speaking I can honestly say that by the end of the book I was solidly won over by Grimnir and was rooting for him all the way.
So, should you read A Gathering of Ravens? Well, if you enjoy historical fantasy novels of vast and epic proportions, then yes, yes you absolutely should. Scott Oden’s delectable prose and attention to detail brought this story to life before my eyes, immersing me in a riveting world steeped in history and myth. I was also amazed at how easy it was to instantly engage with the plot and feel invested in the characters. Clearly there’s a whole lot here to fall in love with, and I would not hesitate to recommend this novel to all fans of dark historical or mythical fantasy. I can’t wait to read more by the author.