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A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden

To the Danes, he is skraelingr; to the English, he is orcneas; 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.

Drawn from his lair by a thirst for vengeance against the Dane who slew his brother, Grimnir emerges into a world that’s changed. A new faith has arisen. The Old Ways are dying, and their followers retreating into the shadows; even still, Grimnir’s vengeance cannot be denied.

Taking a young Christian hostage to be his guide, Grimnir embarks on a journey that takes him from the hinterlands of Denmark, where the wisdom of the ancient dwarves has given way to madness, to the war-torn heart of southern England, where the spirits of the land make violence on one another. And thence to the green shores of Ireland and the Viking stronghold of Dubhlinn, where his enemy awaits.

But, unless Grimnir can set aside his hatreds, his dream of retribution will come to nothing. For Dubhlinn is set to be the site of a reckoning–the Old Ways versus the New–and Grimnir, the last of his kind left to plague mankind, must choose: stand with the Christian King of Ireland and see his vengeance done or stand against him and see it slip away.

Imagine learning the story of monster, like Grendel from the epic Beowulf, but the tale is told from Grendel’s perspective. Scott Oden’s latest, A Gathering of Ravens, does exactly that. While brother raises arms against brother, and factions vie for power across northern Europe, an unworldly creature stalks the land driven by a powerful need for revenge.

Hate is a powerful emotion, and due to his all-consuming rage, Grimnir can probably be best described as an anti-hero. He is driven by a fundamental desire to crush his ancient enemy. It doesn’t matter how far away they are, or how many leagues he has to travel. He will go anywhere and do anything to get his revenge. Grimnir isn’t saddled with complications like a human sense of morality. He does what he wants, when he wants. Death follows in his wake. He is violent and is happy to kill whenever necessary. At first glance you might think Grimnir is a little one dimensional, but that is not the case.  He is far more complex than that. There are layers to this character to uncover.

Étaín, Grimnir’s companion under duress, could easily be viewed as the polar opposite of her captor. She is a follower of the White Christ, and views her unfortunate journey with Grimnir as a trial she needs to overcome. One of the things I liked most about this novel are the conversations between both characters. Initially, Grimnir is dismissive of Étaín’s every utterance, but as they travel further his attitude changes. I was going to say it softens, but that isn’t in Grimnir’s nature. Let’s say he is more accepting of the fact Étaín has a different point of view. The same can be said of the young Christian. She begins to appreciate that there are things in the world that can’t be explained away by her religion. Grimnir himself is proof positive that the old gods still hold some sway in the affairs of men.

When it comes to the other characters there is no good or bad only shades of grey. The various lords, witches, dwarves, elves and kings that stand between Grimnir and his quarry are all seeking something. The quest for power pushes groups to form shaky alliances and personal allegiances shift like the turning of the tides. Everyone scrabbles about trying to grasp at as much as they possibly can. Greed is a huge motivating factor in a lot of the plans that are afoot. The power plays make most of the characters, with a couple of notably exceptions, come across as unpleasant. I rather like that. There is a brutal honesty about what drives them.

The action in A Gathering of Ravens takes place in a time where the old traditions were making way for the new. This isn’t just the story of a battle between cultures from different lands, this is the story of The White Christ waging war on the Old Gods. The climax of the narrative is the battle of Chluain Tarbh. On the outskirts of Dublin, all the factions finally come together and Grimnir gets the opportunity to face his foe. The final chapters are particularly well handled as you get an ever-growing sense of tension that becomes almost unbearable, the calm before the inevitable storm of death and destruction.

When it comes to a musical recommendation my choice needed to be something suitably atmospheric. I’ve chosen an album by the Icelandic folk musicians Wardruna. Runaljod – Yggdrasil perfectly captures the otherworldliness of Grimnir and his epic journey.

If you’ve read, and enjoyed, A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun or Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson then I’m sure you’ll enjoy A Gathering of Ravens. Nothing better than a bit of axe sharp historical fiction with a keen fantastical edge is there?

A Gathering of Ravens is published by Bantam Press and is from 29th June.

A Gathering of Ravens

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