Today is my stop on the blog tour for ‘A Ritual of Flesh’ by Lee C. Conley organised by Storytellers on Tour. This is the second book in Dead Sagas, and you can find my review of the first book ‘A Ritual of Bone’ HERE. I’ve read and reviewed A Ritual of Flesh before, and I had always planned to do a Halloween reread, so I leapt at the chance to join this tour during spooky season.
I hope that you will check out the book and the author, and enjoy the rest of the tour with the schedule in the banner below or (HERE).
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.
I love revisiting books. I am a chronic re-reader for several reasons, but when it comes to returning a book that was already a favourite, it feels very much like wrapping yourself in a duvet and visiting an old friend. Even amongst the death and carnage, there is something comforting about revisiting a book you’ve read and enjoyed. It’s also the sign of a good book – because you don’t tend to retrace your steps through the pages of a book that you didn’t love, but also an excellent test of a book (in my personal opinion), because there is the opportunity to spot details however big or small that you hadn’t noticed previously. Not enough to change the story or the impact necessary, but just little bits, to deepen the experience, to catch your attention – and I certainly found that happening with A Ritual of Flesh.
Firstly, I have to say that A Ritual of Flesh immediately gains bonus points for two things. One is that it includes a ‘story so far’ section, and a Dramatis Personae. I hadn’t needed this so much the first time I read A Ritual of Flesh as I had just finished listening to the first book before picking up this one, although it was still appreciated. However, for this reread it was much needed resource, and I am glad to see it becoming a more common practice. The other bonus point, to the surprise of no one who follows this blog is that A Ritual of Flesh includes not just one map, but three, so my inner map-nerd was very happy.
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.
‘What had his poor boy become? Every time he laid eyes upon his son, his hope waned a little more; the hope of returning his son to the man he had once been becoming ever more remote.’
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 worldbuilding 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.
They passed amongst wide trunks of old oaks, the ground littered with browning autumn leaves, long since fallen from above. Dappled light spilt down onto the forest floor through the latticework of bare branches overhead, the sky beyond heavy with dark grey clouds.
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 breathe a little too deeply you will be lost in that stench of death and rot, or feel the snow and cold wind 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.
‘I warned them. I warned you,’ said Bjorn. ‘They’re not just mere savages. These Stonemen are killers, beasts. They are feeding on the folk of Arnar.’
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 its 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 especially since we’re in the spooky season.
I also wanted to add that the audiobook for A Ritual of Flesh – well, actually the audiobook for both books in The Dead Sagas – is absolutely fantastic. I often struggle with audiobooks because I am very picky with narrators, however, RJ Bayley is the perfect narrator for these books and I honestly can’t imagine them being read by anyone else and it really adds to the experience. I’ve now listened to both several times and I would highly recommend them!
Lee is a musician and writer in Lincolnshire, UK. He lives with his wife Laura and daughters Luna and Anya in the historic cathedral city of Lincoln. Alongside a lifetime of playing guitar and immersing himself in the study of music and history, Lee is also a practitioner and instructor of historic martial arts and swordsmanship. After writing his advanced guitar theory textbook The Guitar Teachers Grimoire, Lee turns his hand to writing fiction. Lee is one of the founders of Bard of the Isles literary magazine and is now also studying a degree in creative writing while working on his debut fantasy series The Dead Sagas, which includes the novels A Ritual of Bone and A Ritual of Flesh, as well as also generally writing speculative fiction and horror.
Prize: A Ritual of Flesh by Lee C Conley – International
Grand Prize: A signed hardcover
Runners-up: Choice of audiobook or ebook
Starts: October 10th, 2021 at 12:00am EST
Ends: October 17th, 2021 at 11:59pm EST
You can enter HERE
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.