Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Since I am generally more of a horror fan than anything else, I admit that I miss out on great works by authors in other genres. Some months ago, there was a call for reviewers for an upcoming book by Scott Oden. I had never heard of him before, but Adrian Chamberlin (whose work I am extremely fond of) gave me the head’s up. I read the brief summary of the book and was immediately intrigued by the little I read about A Gathering of Ravens.

I responded to the call for reviewers, and was placed on the list. When the book arrived, I was extremely impressed. A Gathering of Ravens is a solid book, clocking in at 336 pages, and I found that there was nothing I would have cut out of the book. On the contrary, I would have added more to it in the form of a series, but that’s me being selfish. I didn’t want A Gathering of Ravens to end!

My apologies upfront, I will not be getting very in-depth with the plot summary. Oden packs many surprises and twists into his story, and I don’t want to deprive any readers of the joy of discovering those twists for themselves. The story begins with a young monk travelling to a monastery, guided and protected by a great warrior. They shelter for the night in a cave, coming face to face with a fierce skraelinger. (Fantasy fans might be more familiar with the term “orc”.) The skraelinger is none too happy to have anyone in his cave, even for a night. He allows them to stay, with the understanding that they will be gone come morning. When morning comes, things are not as cut and dry as they had seemed the night before, and the real journey begins.

As the reader continues, it is revealed that the story really belongs to Grimnir, the skraelinger. His quest for vengeance overtakes any other storylines and becomes the driving force of the story. His brother was murdered many years ago, and Grimnir had sworn to avenge him. Not only will Grimnir go to great lengths to make good on his oath, but everyone around him will be drawn into his quest, whether willingly or not.

A Gathering of Ravens is an amazing book. I was really upset when it ended, because there is, as yet, no announcement of it becoming a series. Oden is masterful in deceiving his audience. I was pleased to see the main character shift to Grimnir who is not likeable in a traditional sense, but has his own honor and code that he lives by. I have to admit that Oden threw me for a loop. At first he seemed to deal disrespectfully with the young monk’s Christian faith, but as I continued, I realized that much of what he wrote mirrors history. It’s no secret that the Crusades were a less than holy undertaking, no matter what they were intended to be. Oden also weaves in a deep respect for nature worship, and eventually shows that the two can co-exist and that a belief in both is no conflict. Don’t misunderstand me – Oden is in no way preachy. However, he is deft in terms of weaving the character’s various faiths and superstitions together. If anything, it adds to the three-dimensionality of the characters. They become all the more real because they are complicated, unpredictable, and a mesh of their various influences and cultures.

Oden is a master world builder as well. There are many places where it is difficult to tell if the events are real or fake. The locations in the story vary, from the very real England, to the mythical Yggdrasil, or World Tree. It doesn’t matter where the characters are, the setting always seems real.

The supporting characters are also well written and complex. There are no superfluous characters, and all of them are more than just a vehicle to move the plot along. Oden also manages to drop hints about the character’s pasts and influences, so that the reader seamlessly gets a feel for who they are without being tossed out of the action of the book for a “backstory session”.

Overall I am very impressed with Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens. It’s an amazing work of fantasy with a very real touch of both humanity and the weight of history. While reading it, I lost many hours of sleep because I didn’t want to put the book down. Oden has populated his strange world with witches, monsters, Vikings, warriors, cowards, and everything in between. It’s safe to say he’s gained another fan after writing this book!

Since it’s going to be a movie soon anyway…

The cover of World War Z

Pretty steady reading.

I figured now would be a great time to stop whining, suck it up, and read “World War Z” by Max Brooks.  It’s slated for theaters sometime in December, and I despise watching a movie before reading the book.  I’d stayed away from reading WWZ because, quite frankly, Max Brooks’ zombie visions scare me witless.

Oftentimes while reading WWZ, I tortured myself mentally for passing up the chance to see Brooks live in Buffalo in October.  What the hell was I thinking?!  In any event, that won’t happen again, if I can help it.

Back to the book though.  I read through it slowly, mostly because I wanted to really have time to think about what was going on, whether it could actually happen, and what it was saying about the human race.

In general, the book was pretty steady reading.  It wasn’t overly crazy, nor was it boring.  It kept a decent pace, and was set in many locales.  Brooks did an outstanding job of writing from different perspectives – it was possible to believe he was actually conducting the interviews with different people.  There were locales in Korea, China, Russia, the US, and several other cities.  Brooks’ focus wasn’t really on the plight of the zombies – most likely because that niche has been thoroughly (and thankfully) flooded with material.  He chose to focus on the interactions between the people in different countries, and the impact of racial, religious, and cultural differences.  I tend to agree with him in that humanity’s inability to occupy the sandbox peacefully will get us into trouble.  However, being the diehard cynic I am in that regard, I don’t share his belief that we will overcome the threat.  I see us bombing ourselves into oblivion instead.  (Sorry folks, I’ve never been the sunny kind of person  when it comes to these things.)

One section had me bawling my eyes out though.  There is a series of interviews with a man who ran a K-9 team during the War.  He talks about the struggles of working with your canine partner, and of the tragedies that accompany the line of work.  For a few days, I had horrible dreams of my dog Lily and I being part of those teams.  Only instead of us being victorious, I always wound up seeing her disappear beneath a swarm of gray hands, the last vision always being her looking at me pleadingly.  I had to stop reading the book for awhile.  It still bothers me, even while I’m sitting here writing.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a casual or avid zombie reader, or is interested in history.  Again, read the book before you see the movie!  (While I was looking for a trailer, I got rick-rolled.  Oops.  Well, maybe later when the fake and fan-made trailers are done taking over I will find a decent one to link.)  In any event – stop reading this and go see the movie!

Brooks, Max “The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks”

Max Brooks shows off his Rocket Llama patch at...

Image via Wikipedia. This author Max Brooks - creator of one of the most believable zombie series ever.

This book is very thin but very well written and illustrated.  The book examines 12 noteworthy incidents in zombie history and brings them to you in gory black and white.  One of my favorites is the explanation for the mummification method in ancient Egypt as a means to prevent the undead from rising.

The real strength of the book lies in its believability.  Every story in the book is believable.  For example, Brooks examines the plight of an African slave ship.  He explains that the slaves trapped in the hold were taken, one by one, by the zombie virus as one chained person leaned over and bit the other person.  Knowing about the conditions on the ships at that time from history class, I can easily imagine that a zombie virus would spread in a similar manner.  The drawings in the book are really well done, and actually cause the heart to quicken when anticipating a zombie attack.

This book is an excellent companion to Brooks’ other zombie works and I highly recommend it.  As an aside, when trying to persuade a zombie-phobe to actually give the monsters a try, it’s worthwhile using this book.  It’s a quick and engaging read.