Review | A Ritual of Bone (The Dead Sagas, #1) – Lee C. Conley

About the Book

“Only valour and steel can stand against the rising dead”

Arnar is a land of warriors, its people as stalwart as the stones themselves. In a land of dark forests and ancient hill forts, a forgotten evil is awoken by curious minds. 

The Great Histories and the Sagas say nothing of this evil, long passed from the memory of even the studious scholars of the College. For centuries, the scholars of Arnar have kept these records and preserved the knowledge and great deeds of a proud people. The story of these peoples forever chronicled in the Sagas of the Great Histories. 

But now the evil spreads and the dead walk in its wake, terrible creatures roam the night and even the spirits are restless. The Dead Sagas could perhaps be the final chapters of these great records. 

Many threads entwine to tell this Saga, interweaving the tales of those who played their part in the search for answers and ultimately their fight for survival. Amid plague, invasion and terror, the inexorable rise of the dead sends a kingdom scrabbling to its knees.

This Dark Fantasy Epic combines dark malign horror and gritty survival adventure as the Dead Sagas unfold in a world where honour and renown is all, where beasts and savages lurk in the wilderness, and where sword, axe and shield is all that stands between the living and the grasping hands of the dead. 

384 pages (paperback)
June 17, 2019
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This book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Lee C. Conley is a new author to me. However, I was in the mood for something a bit darker, a bit horror, with an atmosphere to give me the creeps but not make me feel like I was reading Stephen King or something, and here we are. 

A Ritual of Bone is an interesting story that follows a few different characters. It doesn’t become clear how they all intersect until near the end, which I really enjoyed. While this book does follow distinct storylines, there’s a certain unity in them, in the world building, and the activities taking place so while I didn’t always know how they were related, I was confident I would eventually figure it out. I enjoyed this atypical narration. It not only served the book quite well, but it also gave the readers a layered, textured world to immerse themselves in. I’ve said in a lot of my recent reviews that I read a lot, and it seems like these days the authors who dodge the norm and go their own way are the ones I’m paying attention to, and Conley does that quite well. 

The worldbuilding really needs some time to shine. One other thing you’ll know if you’ve read my reviews for any length of time is that it almost takes an act of God for me to read a book that involves zombies and/or boats. I don’t know why, but those two things almost never work for me. A Ritual of Bone does not involve boats, but it does involve zombies. I wasn’t aware of that at first, and when I got my first hint of the creatures, I was all, “Oh, I’m going to hate this.” However, I will say it really worked for me. Likely, this is largely due to the unique world, and Conley’s deft hand at creation and his skill with balance.

‘They test us…because here dwell men who will fight, and we should be honoured that they have chosen us–perhaps the finest warriors of Arnar–as their champions. Old Night will be denied my spirit this night.’

You see, this book is an interesting mix of western-esque fantasy and horror, never too much of one or the other. I think one reason zombies annoy me so much is they are usually leaned on so hard they become parodies of themselves, and almost so unrealistic they are laughable. Conley seems to know when to hold back and when to really lean into his world and the beasties that inhabit it. This creates a really good balance, not just between all these different elements, but also between the fantasy and horror aspects of the book. It required a lot of detailed thinking on the part of the author, and a lot of planning, and he pulled this interesting marriage off nearly flawlessly. 

There is blood and violence in these books. I mean, what book featuring cannibalism and zombies wouldn’t have blood and violence? Like most other aspects of the book, however, I never felt like Conley glorified in the blood, or made more of it than what there should be in any particular scene. This is grimdark, and things are really dark and grim, but he knows when to lean in and go full throttle and when to pull back and let the details and graphics be inferred rather than in your face. I should also note, Conley has nailed the creeping sense of dread that is a requirement in all horror novels. It was there, and it was spectacular.

The characters were also this interesting mixed bag for me, where, like with zombies, I expected to really dislike them, but I ended up really liking them. On the one hand, you’ve got Master Logan and his apprentice, who are toying around with some arcane magic that has long been forgotten. It’s very easy for what they are doing to have long lasting, and dire consequences. And, like humans everywhere, they do it anyway. I will freely admit that the master/apprentice storyline isn’t one I typically enjoy. However, Conley knew what he was doing. Much like the zombies, he took something I expected to hate, and wrote it in such a way where I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. 

Perhaps it was easier to forget, to fall deeper into the darkness, to leave guilt and grief behind.

On the other hand, we have Bjorn. Bjorn was really the storyline that kept me rooted in place the most. He’s a hunter, escaped from one horrible situation and finding himself in another, even worse one. He’s tough as nails, and keeps the book going forward at an almost relentless pace despite everything set against him. He felt, to me, perhaps a bit more mature than the apprentice, and he was more in the world, and seeing this darkness for himself. Mixed into this are other stories as well, like a captain trying to keep his crew members safe as his soldiers are picked off by a mysterious illness. And then there’s Nym, who is doing absolutely anything in an effort to survive in a terrible place. 

As you can probably guess, there is a whole lot of darkness in this book, and not a ton of light. I am not just speaking of the plot and outside factors, but human nature itself, as examined in this book, is not a thing full of butterflies and rainbows. From the master and his apprentice who are basically hellbent on toying with this seriously dangerous magic, everyone be damned, to the hunter stuck in this abysmal situation, to a mysterious illness, to Nym, who has to sell her body to survive, you really span a lot of the worst parts of the human experience. I tend to really enjoy this kind of thing, but I know a lot of readers don’t. They want a little light to balance out all the dark, and you should know what in the pool before you dive. 

So, as you can see, I really did enjoy this book immensely. 

My one issue is (and I feel horrible saying this) regarding editing. Look, I’m a full-time editor. I have been doing this for years. The result is that I have a really hard time turning this part of my brain off. However, I did feel like this book could have used a bit more editing, specifically line editing. There were repeated words in some paragraphs, and some clunky phrasing, and points where I think this detail had already been covered. Small things that likely the average reader wouldn’t notice, but this is my job, and this is how I put bread on my table, so I notice, and I wouldn’t be writing a good review if I wasn’t honest, so there it is. 

At the end of the day, this book had a whole host of things in it that I thought I’d hate but ended up loving, and the reason for that is because Conley has this skill with knowing how to balance all the elements of his story. Without that, I honestly think I would have bounced off this book. However, A Ritual of Bone was one of those weird ones that seems to defy all odds and tell a story that I ended up extremely invested in. It is the darkest kind of grimdark, but it’s unique marriage of epic fantasy and horror, and the multi-layered story being told made this one impossible to put down. 

4/5 stars


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