Gathering of Ravens
Scott Oden was born in Indiana, but has spent most of his life shuffling between his home in rural North Alabama, a Hobbit hole in Middle-earth, and some sketchy tavern in the Hyborian Age. He is an avid reader of fantasy and ancient history, a collector of swords, and a player of tabletop role-playing games. When not writing, he can be found walking his two dogs or doting over his lovely wife, Shannon.
Oden’s previous works include the historical fantasy, The Lion of Cairo, and two historical novels, Men of Bronze and Memnon. He is currently working on his next novel.
A Gathering of Ravens was my introduction to Scott Oden’s work, and after completing the mytho-historical story, I am now scouring his backlist for another appealing tale. The story is imposing and dark, deftly woven by Oden to mix legend and history, telling of the last Orc and his quest for revenge. If you like action, complex characters, and gory battles, this book is worth reading.
“To the Danes, he is skraelingr; to the English, he is orcnéas; to the Irish, he is fomoraig. He is Corpse-maker and Life-quencher, the Bringer of Night, the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. He is Grimnir, and he is the last of his kind; the last in a long line of monsters who have plagued humanity since the Elder Days.”
A Gathering of Ravens begins rather smoothly, introducing a world with beautiful language interwoven, which captivates the reader from the first page. Plunged into the Middle Ages among misty mountains and rocky shorelines of 11th Century Northern Europe, our protagonist is a bad-tempered, cruel Orc named Grimnir, who is more twisted than the tangled roots of Yggdrasil. He soon seizes a young Christian hostage to guide him through the changing world of men. Étaín, his hymn-singing companion, looks to the new faith and prayer for comfort, while reluctantly helping Grimnir track his enemy, the man who killed his kin.
Grimnir is a questionable hero, but the reader will soon discover themselves allied with the old Orc and his bloodthirsty quest. If anything, the most noteworthy quality in Grimnir is his unshakable honor, which is seemingly forgotten by the men he crosses on his journey. Yes, the nature of humankind is repeatedly tested and—as expected in a tale featuring an Orc—these short-lived, power-driven men and women rarely deserve Grimnir’s mercy. Yet the Orc confronts more than simple humans. For instance, the tipping point that caused me to howl with glee was when Grimnir visited the dvergar—dwarves—to travel the Ash-Road. Though, undeniably, I have a special adoration for any story inclusive of the fabled Yggdrasil.
The two critiques I have for this novel reflect my preferences in storytelling, though neither would prevent me from reading more of Oden’s works, including this book, again. First, the pacing of the chapters was irregular for me. I am a reader who sits down for a couple of hours to read a few, long chapters in a book like Dune, The Last Unicorn, or Mistborn. Typically, I will finish a chapter, break for a snack, and replay the events in which I read moments before; but I could not do this with A Gathering of Ravens. The book has 85 chapters and an epilogue within 336 pages. If you like fast-moving chapters, you will love the swift pace; but the chapters were too thinly diced for my taste.
Second, Oden will sometimes take the reader into the viewpoint of secondary or tertiary characters. The jolt of perspective temporarily pulled me from the story, which was especially grating when the changeover occurred amidst a battle. Most of the time, I would have preferred the entirety of some scenes to be told from one character’s point-of-view. While speculating that Oden hoped to benefit from examining Grimnir from multiple standpoints, his readers will have to determine if this offset the story for them. With these minor critiques being said, I still have not touched on the aspect of Oden’s book I most enjoyed.
The characters were vibrant, the plot was delightful, and the setting held an enchanting appeal, but Oden’s mastery in depicting the struggle between paganism and Christianity is what brought this story full circle. Oden could have focused on themes of sexuality, politics, race, inequality, or social injustice, but instead his overarching conflict is between the new, Nailed God religion clashing with the old ways of magic and waning gods, which subsequently impacts Grimnir at every turn. Time and time again, I was eager to turn the pages to see how the Christian mythos would weaken the authority and influence of Grimnir’s gods, and whether the Orc had the strength to endure. Honestly, I believe if Oden had tried to build up the other socio-cultural topics as primary issues, he would have failed this book. Fortunately, A Gathering of Ravens is far from spoiled.
In summary, the book is balanced between impressive battles, and theology with characters who appear to have stepped out of history to dance across the pages. Readers who prefer historical authenticity will enjoy the motivations of Oden’s characters. The story is tastily violent without needless gore, promising to widen the scope of the main character’s perspective, as well as that of the reader.
Oden set out to redeem the Orc, taking pieces from Norse and Celtic mythology, from Beowulf to Balor, and he did fabulously. A Gathering of Ravens is a blend of Wolves of the Dawn by William Sarabande, Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson, and Mad Merlin by J. Robert King. Highly recommended.