In recent years, it seems as though the idea of the zombie apocalypse has become rather prevalent in popular media. People tell me that this is because of the television series, The Walking Dead, but as I haven’t actually seen The Walking Dead, I couldn’t tell you how accurate that is. Given this proclivity, though, it seems inevitable that I would come across a zombie apocalypse type book. Luckily for me (and all you other readers out there), this book happened to be A Ritual of Bone by Lee C Conley. This book managed to turn a popular trope on its head by making it interesting, mysterious, dangerous, and still appropriately littered with “the dead”. Spoilers: this book is one of my best reads of the year.
A Ritual of Bone begins with a group of academics from The College who are out in the dark, in the wilderness, performing a questionable ritual. We are never quite certain why this ritual is being performed—are they trying to disprove sorcery? trying to prove sorcery? trying to explore history? unknown—but it seems to be of vital importance to them. Unfortunately, the result is that they raise the dead in a rather major way. Don’t worry! The academics aren’t entirely at fault (I think). There are also cannibals on the lose. They are hunting, or being hunted by, Bjorn, who is trying to figure out what is going on out in the wilds. Then, there is a port city where a mysterious disease is rife; and the symptoms look suspiciously like those resulting from the bite of the dead. Humanity is in danger of becoming something else, and there are a few too many questions to ponder while also fighting for your life. In short, carry a big axe or you’re snookered.
This story is set in an age that is the equivalent of the Viking age and it shows up quite well. The narrative description is very well written; it manages to give a good sense of what is going on and where without providing an information dump that confuses readers. The description is well done and the dead are appropriately terrifying. For me, language nerd that I am, I was particularly impressed with the way that the language manages to convey the culture and time being portrayed. The language is consistent and appropriate to the time, even when disease-ridden not-quite-dead people are bearing down on the characters. This can be a point of difficulty for some writers, as they are apt to slip into slightly more modern language during emotionally charged scenes. However, Lee Conley manages to be consistent and still demonstrate that yes, you really are about to die, without ruining the language.
Be forewarned, though. This book brings up a lot of questions. And not very many of them are answered. Okay, yes, this is the first book in a series. And, yes, you have to still have some questions to be answered in subsequent books. But come on! The cliffhanger?! Ugh. (I was practically demanding the sequel. All I got in return was a snicker and a consistent response that, yes, he does know the name of one of the significant characters, but he wasn’t going to tell me. Pfff.)
There were many questions that weren’t answered, but I think it was done in a way that made all of the questing worthwhile. There were a significant number of elements woven together in this story. Truth be told, it felt more like a mystery novel than a true dark fantasy zombie apocalypse book. Which is, probably, why I found this to be such a good book. I like the fact that there was information out there still to be sought out. I like that the significant elements are presented to you without all of the answers. In fact, my favourite character—Bjorn—is my favourite for that very reason. He has a definitive purpose, but I do not know why he has that purpose, or what his motivation is. I only know that Bjorn is a character worth paying attention to, and I’m not quite certain why.
Basically, it’s like the author promised me chocolate, as long as I could find it. Offering tidbits of information as clues and then pointing me in the wrong direction, just to see what will happen. It’s intriguing. It’s challenging. It’s fun. Well, except for the whole dead aren’t dead and what-not. Though, that has its appeal, too.
My main critique for this novel is actually related to the reason why I like it so much. For as much as I like a mystery, the one surrounding The College is a bit much. They play a rather significant role, considering it is their fault that things are going sideways. But the motivations are completely unclear. I am not sure of their role in the world at large, either. I know it must be significant, or they would not hold as much power as they do, but I do not actually have the answer. Also, the Apprentice, who bears witness to the ritual and subsequent events, needs a name. (I know, I know, I said that already, but really. I want to know!)
Overall, I would say that this story is extremely well written. It provides you with a sense of the culture and its people. It has thrills and the shouldn’t-you-be-dead. And, most of all, it has questions that remain unanswered for very good reason. I’m not quite sure what those reasons are, but I am assured that the reasons are very good. Given the quality of the book, I shall take it and wait eagerly for the next book.