Today I am delighted to be sharing my review of A Ritual of Flesh by Lee C. Conley, the second book in the Dead Sagas. I first discovered this series and author through the Storytellers on Tour blog tour for the first book A Ritual of Bone and fell in love with the world and story, and went into this one with high expectations that were blown out of the water and this book is easily a favourite read for 2021.
As evil ravages the north and the dead walk, all eyes fall to Arn… The apprentice journeys south, home to the College, unaware of the dark events that transpired in the High Passes after his departure. His leg in ruins, and haunted by watching shadows, the College council in Arn awaits him, but he does not travel south alone.
Arnulf and his warriors must travel to Arn also, with tidings for the king of the risen dead and the terrible curse which has destroyed all that he knew. Arnulf seeks vengeance upon the College, but must choose wisely if he is to save his son.
Meanwhile in the west, Bjorn and his strange Wildman companion report back to High Lord Archeon at Oldstones with grim news of cannibal Stonemen encroaching from the Barrens, but is embroiled in news of war and invasion as Archeon requests his service once more.
In the capital sickness awaits them all, Nym has fled to the city and must now continue her struggle for survival on the plague ridden streets of Arn, keeping all who she cares for safe from the halls of Old Night.
The many threads of this Saga converge on the city of Arn, but amid plague, invasion and terror, a greater darkness is looming. Dark forces are seeking to unleash evil upon Arnar, honour and renown is all, and sword, axe and shield is all that stands between the living and the grasping hands of the dead.
Firstly, I have to say that A Ritual of Flesh immediately gets bonus points for two reasons. For one it features something that I have been seeing a little more these days, and that is a ‘story so far’ section. It wasn’t strictly necessary for me this time, as I have been listening to the audiobook of the first book (which I would highly recommend as well as the print version, and I will certainly be grabbing the audiobook of this one as well when it is released), but it is certainly a trend that I appreciate. The other bonus point that will surprise no one that knows me, and is that it has maps. Maps – having seen some discussion lately are by no means ‘essential’ to my enjoyment of a book, but I am a geographer and map-nerd at heart, so it always makes me happy to see a map (or maps in this case) and I will spend time looking at them and flicking back to them at certain points throughout a book.
What is particularly striking about this story is just how human it is at its core. Yes, there are undead and dark rituals and grimoires, but that is only one aspect of the threats facing Arnar, with war and disease pressing in on other sides, and yet all of that is a backdrop to the story to the cast of characters. I had enjoyed what Conley had done with the characters in the first book, but in A Ritual of Flesh that reaches a whole new level, and even as the scope of the world and the threats increase, there is something more personal and intimate about the time spent with the characters. Even as their stories and paths converge in Arn, we learn more about their motivations and goals as individuals, and about their losses – because one of the central emotions and experiences in the Dead Sagas is loss, and not just of life although that is prevalent throughout the many dangers of this world.
Nym remains one of my favourite characters, but I think in this book it was Arnulf who stole the show for me, and there were some truly raw and heart-breaking moments in his story. I also really enjoyed the story of the apprentice (I will not spoil his name here) and the path he took, even as he was one of those characters that there were so many moments that you just hated him, and yet at the same time you could understand how he had ended up in that position – the human weaknesses that drove him. I also appreciated that the time was also taken to build in the lives and struggles of everyday people, while we have our main cast, the world around them was living (mostly…) and struggling to survive just as much as the central characters, and catching glimpses of those lives, of what the situation is doing to them, added an incredible depth to the world.
Similarly, the world building has continued to grow and expand in A Ritual of Flesh, and there are layers within layers, without ever being overwhelming or stealing the focus away from the narrative. Instead, what we have is an immersive world, with a wonderful sense of breadth and depth, not just in terms of places and events, but in history and memory as well. What really brings this world to life though, is how Conley writes it, appealing to all the senses as well as to the emotions through the atmosphere he creates, until it feels as though if you breath a little too deeply you will be lost in that stench of death and rot, or feel snow and cold win on your face. It is impossible not to envisage this world, or to be caught up in everything that is happening and I love that feeling of being as invested in the fate of Arn and Arnar as I was the people that inhabit it.
A Ritual of Flesh is a book meant for devouring (which is fitting really…) because the atmosphere that is built throughout, that feeling of foreboding even in the quiet moments, leaves you inching closer to the edge of your seat and makes it almost impossible to stop reading. There was a steady, swelling rhythm to the pacing throughout the book, balanced by quieter moments of character emotion and insights into the world, and that pacing combined with the atmosphere is an intoxicating combination and when you hit the final third of the book where that steady rhythm becomes a raging crescendo you’re hooked. Not a single part of this book was wasted, the slower moments gave us time to learn more about the characters, and to become more immersed in that world, so that we had stakes in the fate of these people, of the fracturing city and the action at the end.
Conley has taken everything that I enjoyed about A Ritual of Bone and turned the dial-up – from the scale of the world and its events, to the size of the book (it’s chunkier than it’s predecessor, but the way you’re swept through it, you almost wouldn’t know it), to the layers of world building and I loved it. This is certainly not a read for the faint of heart (or stomach), but if you want Norse/Medieval inspired fantasy with the raw flavour of horror then the Dead Sagas should be a must read. It’s certainly one that I would highly recommend, and I am already planning a Halloween reread, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.