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!

Now for some watery terror !

An artist's visual representation of the Elder...

Cthulhu - tentacles and all. Image via Wikipedia

What a fabulous book!  “Beneath the Surface” was an amazing book!  Judging by the Cthulhu looking beauty on the cover, I thought these stories would be all about the ocean.  I was really off-base with that assumption, and all the better for it!

Almost every story in this book was a blast.  “Thorguson” by Scott Christian Carr started the anthology.  It details a submarine captain in his ship at the bottom of the ocean.  His whole crew is dead, but they’re walking around and banging on the sides of the ship.  We never find out why they died, but we do find out what they’re up to, and it’s not too pretty.  The story is written from the point of view of the captain as he faces his horrible end.  Great story!

Next up is “Raw Materials” by Derek M. Fox.  After reading this story, I will never go for a road trip.  Not an unplanned road trip, nor a planned one.  Nor will I stay in a hotel that isn’t run by a chain.  As one couple finds out, the kindly but slightly odd proprietors may just be after your hide!  All around creepy story.

“Stone Creek Station” by Scott William Carter provides an interesting look into a wish most people have at one time or another in their lives.  His character decides to go on a road trip after his wife leaves him, and he winds up in a little town with a big secret.  He follows the town elders out to a train station seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  As it turns out, the train station is for the dead, who come and visit periodically.  Wouldn’t everyone like to talk to their deceased loved ones?  After reading this story, I know I changed my theory.  This story is both thought provoking and sad, and certainly not one to be missed.

Marie Brennan puts an evil twist on the Walt Disney Sleeping Beauty tale in “Kiss of Life”.  I’m not going to say anything else, excepting that it’s a times a riot and at times a terror, but it’s definitely a story you NEED to read.

Angeline Hawkes delivers an interesting look at the power of relices in “The Relic: Father Santiago’s Bones”.  It’s also an interesting look into why we choose the relics we do.  The father in question is actually part of the Inquisition.  He allows the rape, torture, and murder of an innocent girl in front of her own mother.  The mother curses him, and when Father Santiago dies his bones become relics.  However, they are not the good kind that grant prayers or heal babies.  They are cursed, and when certain people touch them, a terrible thing happens.  (I can’t tell you, because it will ruin the story.)  This story is also a must-read!

To be honest, I liked the book so much that I almost wrote a summary for every story.  If there is one book you buy this month, you need to buy “Beneath the Surface.”  It includes all the stories mentioned above, plus a money tree that punishes it’s finder, a sadistic and hungry mattress, a nameless and ancient horror about to be unleashed, and a witch who steals souls.  There are many other stories in the book – and you NEED to read them all.

All the zombie fragging you can handle…and a little you can’t.

Left 4 Dead 2

Image via Wikipedia

“Left 4 Dead 2” follows four different survivors through a series of zombie infested maps.

The game was an overall improvement from Left 4 Dead (which in and of itself was still an awesome game!)  There are numerous notable changes for the better which include more staggered spacing of the infected.  Instead of running into a constant mob and then nothing, the mobs are well spaced enough so that there is no time to relax and wait for the next mob.

The special infected are bigger, better, and more badass as well.  Hunters, witches, boomers, and tanks all were re-done with more detail including (but not limited to) extra boils, more slime, and more detailed clothing.  New notable specials include the Jockey, who sits atop your character and rides them around while screeching, and my personal nemesis, the Spitter.  Spitters have disjointed jaws and are capable of covering several in-game feet of floor with an acidic puke that will quickly exacerbate the situation for yourself and the other survivors.  The best part ?  She spits it from afar.  Perhaps you can’t see her, but she can still drop you with one or two well-aimed spits.  Eesh.  Not to mention the hordes of other special infected, some of which wear armor and are harder to kill.  Oh and one last thing – there are clown zombies.  A whole carnival section filled to the brim with slavering clown zombies whose eyes glow.  I won’t spoil all the fun – but trust me – you’ll like the new ones !

The story itself is more cohesive within the campaigns.  Rather than just running around blasting zombies to bits, you are following a coordinated escape pattern from area to area.  Don’t fear – the story doesn’t get in the way of mindless blasting, if that’s something you prefer.  The locales are creepier with more special effects including fog, wind and driving rain as well as numerous hiding places for zombies and specials.  The effects add a touch of realism to the video game, as well as add to the unpredictability of the game.  It seems that every time you play, its a different game.

Whether or not you were a fan of the original “Left 4 Dead” you need this game.  I play it on my computer because I’m terrible at first person shooters on a console, but regardless of your choice of play you will have countless hours of enjoyment from “Left 4 Dead 2”.  One more bit of advice – play it in the dark.  It’ll scare you witless.