A Gathering of Ravens. Book Review

A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden
Bantam, p/b, 480pp, £8.99
Reviewed by Charlotte Bond

Whether you enjoy this book is going to depend on whether you feel the bad points are outweighed by the good points. For my part, I found that the writing and amazingly researched setting far outweighed the flaws. I anticipate readers will either find themselves completely drawn into the world and enthralled by its magic, or immensely put off by certain aspects. And those who like anti-heroes are going to love Grimnir.

Dealing with the negative aspects first, I felt that some of the description was a little clunky. In the first 60 pages, the air “whuffs” out of someone during each of the three fights that occur. In addition, descriptions like “fey-bearded” weren’t particularly helpful in conjuring up an exact image in my mind. There were also far too many similes for my tastes, although that is personal preference.

I didn’t feel there was much chemistry between the two protagonists. Their wildly different personalities provided a lot of tension and conflict, but never with an end result that one effected a change in the other. This was definitely not a “buddy-movie” style of story, which some may find refreshing and others unsatisfactory.

I also found that the treatment of women in this novel disappointing. Those we met were both defined and controlled by the men around them. Even Kormlada, a powerful witch, is at the mercy of the dreadful Bjarki; there is a nice twist whereby she turns her vulnerability into a trick to deceive him, but it’s not enough to save this novel from being filled with victimised and impotent women.

These are the sort of flaws that seem like they should undermine any book; and for some readers, I suspect these are enough that they might not be willing to stay the course. I myself was rather put off when, not even 25 pages in, Grimnir has unmasked a woman travelling as man by means of groping beneath her robe, dipping his fingers into her menstrual blood and showing it to her as proof. But I stuck with it and was soon racing through the novel and thoroughly enjoying it.

Turning now to the positives of “A Gathering of Ravens”, it is very well-paced. Action is balanced with exposition. Étaín’s past is revealed in stages that keep you reading to find out more. There is a huge leap in both time and geography at one point in the novel, but rather than being horribly disconcerting, you find yourself intrigued as to what has happened to everyone in the interim. There are lots of questions and mysteries here to keep you turning the pages.

The writing shows great craft, such as the smooth transition between real life and the dream world by utilising italics and tenses. I was particularly impressed by the way the narrative will break, almost mid-sentence, to throw you into another world, meaning you feel the transition as sharply as the characters do. One striking example is found on page 167:

The Witch of Dubhlinn nodded. Before the cry of the mná sidhe had woken her, her dream had journeyed far beyond the walls of the city, past the storm-racked heights of Carraig Dubh and down into the vale of the River Bhearú, deep in the heart of Leinster.

“And?”

She closed her eyes and watches a long column of men marching in loose formations, through the rain.

The change of both tense and formatting jolts us into a new world with vivid images; Oden deftly employs language and style to help us get inside his characters’ heads.

While the book would have failed the Bechdel test, that doesn’t matter as this isn’t really a book about women. It’s a book about Grimnir and he is by far one of the best anti-heroes I’ve read about recently. He is vicious, uncaring and, at times, brutal, but he never claims to be anything else. He doesn’t want to be a king, or a leader, or a hero; he just wants to seek revenge. Everything about him is streamlined for violence. There might have been a temptation to try and soften him by the end, to take him through a character progression that resulted in him being more empathetic to those around him, but Oden steadfastly avoids that road. Grimnir does undergo a little character development, but the effect is to make him more wily and cunning, to find better ways to employ his violence rather than just doing so mindlessly. He becomes more refined but never kinder.

Some might find the lack of chemistry between the two protagonists was disappointing, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that each of them are well-crafted individuals. I really cared about what happened to them. It felt as if they were each making their own meaningful, individual journey, but side by side. Their purposes might align at times, but they never truly affected the other. Even on those occasions where Grimnir decides to intervene to save Étaín, he does so not for any real fondness for the girl, but because it coincides with his needs and aims at that moment in time. Because each of them are intriguing characters in their own right, their lack of cohesion didn’t affect the story too much.

The whole novel is infused with a realistic sense of time and place. The language is rich and filled with ancient words such as skraelingr, kaunar, dvergr, seax and faugh (a personal favourite as it’s always fun to learn a new swearword). Oden employs these words within suitable contexts, or with an almost unnoticed description, so that they flow with the text rather than jar the reader out of the narrative. The landscape is beautiful but as bleak as the main characters. Even the secondary characters are all struggling through their daily existence.

I particularly liked the contrasting encounters between Grimnir firstly and the Danes then Grimnir and the Saxons. A group of Danes track down then challenge Grimnir for taking their boats. They are humble men but meet their death in a manner that summons the valkyrjar themselves. Later, he encounters Saxon warriors but despite their better military training, they lack the backbone and honour of the Danes. A real fondness for the Northmen and their ways shines through in Oden’s writing: they might live harsh, brutal lives, but they do so with dignity and resilience.

Of particular note is the Ljódaháttr poetry that Oden employs. Mostly taken from the Prose Edda (with a few tweaks) it is scattered throughout the novel and acts as a link between the old world and the new. When Grimnir or another character speaks such verse, the old gods are either close or drawn closer by the words. There is an element of symbolism in this, since in real life we are always saying how the old ways are kept alive in stories and poetry; in “A Gathering of Ravens”, that idea is reinforced and magically expanded upon.

This is really not a character-driven book, and if you like your women with spirit and agency, you’ll probably one you’ll want to pass this one by. But if you’re looking for a novel set in an undervalued area of history and myth, if you like your fantasy dark and bloody, and if anti-heroes interest you more than traditional heroes, then you’ll enjoy the strange, brutal world that Oden has created.

About Phil Lunt (950 Articles)
Hailing from the rain-sodden, North Western wastelands of England, Phil has dabbled in many an arcane vocation. From rock-star to conveyor-belt scraper at a bread factory, 'Dairy Logistics Technician' to world's worst waiter. He's currently a freelance designer, actor, sometime writer/editor and Chair of the British Fantasy Society. He is on the Global Frequency and is still considering becoming an astronaut when he grows up.