By Julie Rea
A Ritual of Bone is the first in a series of books about a zombie apocalypse in the imaginary kingdom of Arnar. Arnar is a medieval setting, with villages and castles separated by large distances.
The tale of the zombie apocalypse is rendered through a number of different narratives. There are the guards protecting the kingdom who are attacked by zombies and witness how those who are attacked become zombies themselves. The guards also discover the origins of the zombie apocalypse (some academics/mystics reanimated the dead) and how the zombie plague is spreading throughout the kingdom. There is a hunter who discovers abandoned farms, is attacked by cannibals (but interestingly, not full-on zombies), and is stalked by a mysterious man with ambiguous intent. There is a young barmaid who is fighting poverty and attempting to protect her younger brother while her coastal town is increasingly afflicted by a hemorrhagic fever brought in by a ship (but this hemorrhagic fever doesn’t produce zombies).
There’s plenty of action and gore scenes to chew on here, whether it be guards fighting off the dead come back to life or the bitten but not full-on zombies, who are faster and stronger than regular people. The hunter is almost bested by the cannibals, and his interactions with the mysterious man tracking him are tension-filled. The sickness that causes people to bleed out in horrifying ways turns first a sea-faring ship and then the coastal town into places of plague-ridden death.
This reader found the biggest strength of A Ritual of Bone to be its setting. The different locations in the kingdom of Arnar—many scenes of natural beauty, the decrepit nature of the coastal town, the scholar’s workshop where the guards of Arnar discover the scholar’s zombie-making efforts (a pit where left-over zombies have been discarded and trapped is especially effective)—all exhibit good descriptive writing. Conley is skilled at establishing a tone of dread in these various scenes.
The strongest parts of the narrative involve human relationships: the comradeships between the guards who are investigating the first signs of the zombie invasion, the guard who witnesses the destruction of his home and must come to terms with the fact that his son has been bitten, the barmaid and her young brother, the hunter and the strange feral man who is tracking him for some unknown reason, and the zombie-bitten person who finds herself overcome with an appetite for human flesh and attacks her family are examples where character interaction really benefits the story.
Another interesting aspect of this book was its variation on zombie tropes: those who are bitten but not killed become feral, with a low cunning and enhanced speed and strength. The nature of the setting also dictates a change in approach to a zombie apocalypse: rather than a speedy cataclysm, zombies lurch across the countryside, assaulting unwary towns lacking means of easily communicating with one another about the danger. Without bullets, it takes a bit of effort to kill a zombie, and arrows are especially useless.
This reader found this book weakest in its lack of connection between competing narratives and between characters. This reader could not determine what, if any ties there were between the hemorrhagic fever that devastates the ship and then the coastal community and the zombies. In addition, there is only a suggestion that there is a connection between the nature of the zombie-bitten but still alive people who turn feral, gain enhanced abilities, and have a desire for human meat and the cannibals chasing the hunter. The link between these two groups of people or at least the question of this link could have been better defined, even if it is a mystery to be explored in later books. Without greater linkage of the narratives, they become difficult to follow.
This reader also wasn’t sure why we are spending time with some of these characters: it’s not clear what importance the hunter, the barmaid, or the apprentice have in terms of addressing the zombie threat.
Overall, it is an interesting effort in the zombie genre, one providing plenty of tension and gross-out moments, as a book about zombies should. Conley has clear skills as a writer, especially in setting the tone and establishing the setting. I look forward to seeing what further twists the medieval zombie apocalypse takes in future volumes of The Dead Sagas.