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.
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Only valour and steel can stand against the rising dead.
A Ritual of Flesh is a dark and brutal tale of the power of knowledge and the dangers of seeking knowledge meant to remain hidden. Lee C Conley tells a story of the lengths one is willing to traverse in order to protect those they hold dear using a backdrop of unrest and terrors lurking in the shadows. While it tells of a convergence, the scope is more grand and epic in scale in comparison to its predecessor, A Ritual of Bone, yet more personal as we begin to see what lies in the hearts of the many players of this dangerous game. Book two of The Dead Sagas continues where we left off, taking us on a journey of life and death on a hunt for answers. As war and pestilence and death close in on all sides, will the people of Arnar find the strength and resolve to fight the tides of fate? Or will they all drift into the cold embrace of Old Night?
At the center of this story lies a sprawling cast of characters with multiple points of view that all converge on the shattered city of Arn. Each character with a distinct background and purpose, but most with a profound sense of honor and duty. Whether driven by vengeance, money, or survival, they weave a tale of the plight of humankind, and the one thing they all have in common is loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of their home, loss of the past. We witness a warrior on a pilgrimage of revenge, a hunter scouting his way home, a young girl protecting her family, and an apprentice seeking respect, one as determined as the last. As the story stands, there’s a clear distinction between who are the heroes and who are the villains, with a surprising lack of those morally gray characters expected in the Dark Fantasy genre. Yes, lines are crossed, seared and singed by the fires of selfishness, but only together can they join with sword and axe in hand to survive the night.
The life of a man, weighted with silver. So be it…
The secondary world we’re transported to is absolutely captivating and immersive, so strikingly detailed and portrayed. We encounter awe-inspiring settings dominated by towering monoliths, haunting burial cairns, and winding tunnels, but there’s a perpetual scent of rot and death drifting on the cold winter winds. Hovels marked with the blood red sign of plague, the putrid dead littering muddy street gutters, surrounding lands pockmarked by mass graves, and desperation seeping from every doorway, Arn has truly been torn asunder. Outside the locked city gates, war rages in the north, raiders assault from the west, and an old enemy with a hunger for flesh lies in wait over the mountains – there’s no rest for the wicked in Arnar and beyond.
The way in which Conley enriches this world is breathtaking, injecting little bits and pieces in passing to a craft a depth I didn’t even know I needed. There’s no sign of overusage of exposition to slow the flow of the story, everything is done in bite-sized portions that plant a seed that may or may not bloom into something of grave importance later on. I would be remiss to not mention one of my favorite moments in the book, where a mother and child, both who have no bearing on the outcome of the plot, kneel by their window sill to thank the goddess Bheur for the season’s first snowfall on a cold, moonless night. It was beautiful and stirring, and so utterly tragic.
As with book one, A Ritual of Flesh seamlessly blends dark fantasy and horror, only in a magnified and more cohesive manner. The ills of foul magic and disease are spilling into the capitol, and there’s no refuge in sight for those withstanding the onslaught of the risen dead and other beasts of the night. Blood and gore aplenty, each cringe-inducing atrocity draws you further into this unconventional zombie apocalypse brought about by the greed and follies of man. Beneath the horrors lie many cryptic mysteries waiting to be unearthed, everything from the origins of the strange and dangerous rituals to the identity of those pulling the strings, and I’m waiting with bated breath to finally find the answers I seek.
They deny you this title of master, which is your by right, hissed the voice. They fear you, they fear your knowledge, your power. You saw the secrets with your own eyes, you will be master of them all, this I promise, apprentice.
From book one to book two, I’ve witnessed Conley’s writing evolve, becoming stronger, more poignant, and thoroughly enthralling. He continues to create a story balancing gruesome action with heart-rending emotion, all told with a finely flowing prose, easily bringing you under his spell. With steady pacing fueled by a sense of foreboding, it was near impossible for me to put this book down. He continuously builds to a crescendo, and once the shit hits the fan, Conley is merciless – the final third of the book had me on the edge of my seat until the final page was turned…and I need more.
A Ritual of Flesh is a book I’ve been waiting (im)patiently for a while now, and it not only lived up to my expectations, but completely surpassed them. I fully enjoyed making my way through A Ritual of Bone, but I LOVED A Ritual of Flesh. It utilizes what we expect of a tale taking place in a Viking/Medieval-inspired world, but pulls in flavors of modern horror, and presents the wonderfully fresh and unforeseen, which is something I always welcome in a fantasy read. This is not a read for the faint of heart, so be warned there is more than just your typical gore peppering these pages, but for those with a strong stomach and a penchant for the dark and gruesome, The Dead Sagas is a series you need in your life. I can’t recommend it enough – one of my favorite reads of the year.
Note: A huge thank you to the author for providing me with a complementary advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
CW: Graphic gore, death, cannibalism, captivity
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 successful advanced guitar theory textbook The Guitar Teachers Grimoire, Lee turns his hand to writing fiction. Lee is now studying a degree in creative writing and working on his debut fantasy series The Dead Sagas as well as also generally writing speculative fiction and horror.
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