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A Ritual of Bone by Lee C. Conley

A Ritual of Bone by Lee C. Conley
3.5
Book Name: A Ritual of Bone
Author: Lee C. Conley
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Horror / Dark Fantasy
Release Date: June 17, 2019

The land of Arnar is menaced by a vicious plague, a tribe of savage cannibals and a growing tide of the living dead summoned by a dark ritual. Warriors, hunters, nobles and ordinary folk will all have to become heroes if their home is to be saved from the cursed hordes.

That’s A Ritual of Bone in a nutshell.

Since my hatred of zombies is well documented on this very site, you might be wondering what attracted me to Lee C. Conley’s book. Well, the cover is frankly awesome. Kudos to the artist Cloud Quinot. Between that and the blurb I got the impression of a story much like the old David Gemmel rip-roaring battle-fantasy novels that I used to enjoy so much.

This isn’t quite that kind of swashbuckling fantasy where grim warriors trade sardonic quips with their equally grizzled comrades while mowing down foe after foe with axe and sword, casually ignoring the three arrows sticking out of their manly foreheads. There’s plenty of action and desperate fight scenes in this novel, but the battles feel fairly grounded, for all that some of the combatants are supernatural. There aren’t any really unstoppable warriors. In that sense it feels more like a historical novel, where bad luck or numbers can bring down even the best soldier.

Nor is this a straight up horror novel. Though people do get eaten to death, families turn on each other as the curse of inhuman hunger spreads and we are made to live through several emotionally devastating scenes. Let’s pigeonhole this novel as dark fantasy and be done with it. Albeit, dark fantasy that invites as much comparison to Bernard Cornwell’s work as it does to Tolkien.

So, how does it read?

Conley’s use of language felt somewhat clunky to me and I think that it would benefit from a ruthless editor. The repetition of words was noticeable in a few places.

  • ‘still feel that feeling’
  • ‘furthest known peaks of the far north’
  • ‘He laughed, always quick to laugh.’

In another line the narrator states that a character suspected something and that he had no doubt of it, which seems contradictory. And some sentences just take too long to get to the point. (Not that I have much right to throw stones in that department.)

Which is not to say that Conley’s writing is without merit. On the contrary there were some very evocative lines that really stood out to me.

“The colours of the deep rolling ocean came to life out of the grey of the night.” Beautiful.

“…their roots clawing onto the stones seeking patches of earth.” Creates just the right sense of desperation and horror.

Finally, this line describing a festival, of sorts, which seems to be blurring the lines between the natural and the supernatural: “…a realm of the watchful dead, a place where gods strode the between the rocks and the trees.” There’s a really good sense of an ancient, ‘pagan’, spirituality here. Echoes of a time when gods felt closer to humans, but also far more terrifying.

Speaking of gods, the god of death in this setting is called Old Night. Great name!

I’d love to see more of Conley’s poetic, lyrical side in future novels. And I will note, as the story went on and I fell into the rhythm of the writing and stopped finding things to pick at.

Conley uses multiple perspectives to tell this story, jumping between characters and introducing new viewpoints as the story unfolds, Malazan Book of the Fallen style. Only the reader has a complete understanding of events, the characters are often scrabbling around in the dark and wondering what the hell is happening to their lands. Conley is also clearly not a believer in plot armour, some viewpoint characters only survive long enough to die horribly. Their corpses are found by other people who then take up the thread of the story.

The world of A Ritual of Bone seems closer to a Saxon or Nordic setting than a standard medieval fantasy one. Lords lead small bands of warriors backed up by untrained militia, traders travel on boats powered by oar-slaves and important people tend to have halls instead of castles. Even the seax, the classic Saxon knife, gets a mention.

There are stone age people as well, who make their tools and weapons from flint, bones and wood. As to how they’ve survived up to this point without learning the ‘Saxon’ humans’ language or the art of metalworking I don’t know. But they make a nice contrast to the other human characters and I’ll always applaud anyone who draws on different places and times than ‘faux-medieval’ for their fantasy writing. If you get a kick out of books or series like The Last Kingdom, then you might enjoy this story too.

Even better, this relatively low level of technology and organisation makes the existential threat of a zombie plague seem far more hopeless than it would in the modern world. This is a classic Romero-style plague—a bite transmits the infection and the only ‘cure’ is to remove or crack open that cranium.

But it gets worse! Those bitten soon fall into cannibalistic madness and can infect others with it, but they don’t turn into zombies unless they’re actually killed. These living infected are bestial and merciless but still cunning enough to: deceive those around them, strike unexpectedly and even use tactics. They form a terrifying third faction in the war between the living and the dead.

This is a brilliant idea because it gives us a window into the infected. Even by the end of the book we still don’t know what’s really going on. But we get to experience the transformation of the infected, feel their residual guilt or growing pleasure at their crimes and learn a little of what drives them. Which is so much more interesting than watching a tide of brainless monsters slowly shuffling around outside a mall. (How much better would Game of Thrones’ White Walkers have been if we’d learned anything whatsoever about their individual personalities or motivations?)

Other mysteries that remain unsolved so far include the exact nature of the old ruins where the titular ritual was carried out. I look forward to learning about the kind of culture that liked to build stone circles and turn people into ghouls! Also, I’d like to learn more about the exact nature of the gods of this world (if they exist), which Conley only hints at in this first book. I don’t really recall reading a fantasy novel before that has the gods of ‘good’ and ‘civilised’ folk accepting human sacrifices so I wouldn’t mind learning more.

In conclusion. If you like brutal, grimdark fantasy, monstrous hordes, historically influenced settings and tasty lore then give this book a look.

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