By Julie Ann Rea
Here in the U.S., we have had our first day of over four thousand dead from the coronavirus. That’s over four thousand in a single day. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from COVID here since last spring. Our health care workers share accounts of intubations and cardiac arrests and amputations and orders to conserve oxygen and ambulances. We consume this information usually at home, far away from the dead and dying. The dead are off screen. Perhaps this is why so many people believe COVID doesn’t exist.
A Ritual of Flesh, Lee C. Conley’s sequel to his book A Ritual of Bone in his series The Dead Sagas, is in some way a rebuttal to our current time’s inability to acknowledge the reality of death. The Dead Sagas is a series about zombies, magic, and sword play. In the series, a plague results in sick people vomiting blood. The dead pile up in the streets. Then the dead become zombies. In contrast to our current world, Conley’s dead are impossible to ignore, and sometimes they are impossible to escape.
The events of the first book, A Ritual of Bone, haunt the main characters: a lord travels with his zombified son to Arn, intending to warn the king of Arnar about the flesh-eating zombies roaming the countryside; Duncan, the apprentice to a scholar whose dabbling in dark magic resulted in the animation of the undead in the first book, is possessed by an apparition that persuades him to engage in further rituals; Nym, a young woman, seeks to flee the plague that devastated her hometown in the first book. These and other characters ultimately end up in the city of Arn, where magic and the plague team up to provide an army of the undead.
The explosive finale that pits our heroes against the zombies is effective action. The heroes must survive an onslaught of almost an entire city’s worth of zombies, with only a narrow chance of escape.
However, approximately seventy percent of this 590-page book is devoted to getting the characters to places where they need to be in order to for the giant zombie battle to occur. This place-setting lacks narrative tension. As in his previous work, Conley has an eye for environmental detail, and this skill comes through in his scenes of characters making their ways to the city. What’s lacking, at least until the threat of being eaten alive presents itself, are characters with understandable motivations. Characters discuss the threat of the animated dead they faced off against in the previous book. However, aside from one isolated incident in the introduction, the undead don’t threaten the characters until the final pages. Instead of zombie battles, there are prolonged descriptions of travel, backstories that seem unrelated to the plot, and the various steps one character must take in order to perform magic. These aspects of the narrative do not present the characters with obstacles that would make their situations compelling.
Prior to the threat of being eaten, the characters’ motivations are ill-defined or inconsistent. One group arrives to the city fleeing the plague, but their decision to enter a densely populated area beset by the communicable disease they’re trying to avoid is a dubious one. Another set of characters ends up in the city in order to deliver a message to the king, but the significance of this errand is not clear. The motivation for one character’s decision to dabble in black magic, given he knows such magic caused great horror in the previous book, is very muddled. After the zombified boy escapes, he is driven to seek out and kill his father, for reasons unexplained. The king uses dark magic to zombify his recently deceased daughter, a curious decision given he’s been told zombies are flesh-eating monsters.
In addition, this book is filled with asides that slow down the pace and do not benefit the narrative. There is an extensive history of the city Arn. There are prolonged parliamentary procedures. The cannibal sub-plot, which took up extensive space in Ritual of Bone, is addressed in some scenes early on and then dropped for the rest of the book. The ultimate confrontation between the father and the zombified son is interspersed with flashbacks to happier times, dragging the action down. One character’s romantic relationship is described in great detail in one chapter, but the relationship doesn’t evolve over the course of the novel, nor does the relationship seem to have a significance in terms of the greater plot.
Finally, it’s worthwhile to consider how The Dead Sagas books relate to other entries in zombie or zombie-adjacent fiction and film. Zombies were a way to reference consumerism in George Romero’s 1979 film Dawn of the Dead , U.S. war crimes in Iraq in Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 2007 film 28 Weeks Later, and capitalism in Ling Ma’s novel Severance. Novelists have explored the nightmare of the loss of the ability to reason from the point of view of the infected, notably in Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song and Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon. On the other hand, you have the wights of Game of Thrones, where the role of the undead is to provide nightmarish spectacles to threaten the heroes.
A Ritual of Bone and A Ritual of Flesh fall in the tradition of Game of Thrones, both in terms of the sword and sorcery setting and in the limitation of the dead to an animate, grotesque threat that doesn’t really provide metaphorical weight or an insight into the human condition.
Conley’s ability to write action scenes with a large cast of characters is impressive, as the last third of A Ritual of Flesh demonstrates, when the zombie threat asserts itself. Then all of our heroes are motivated by an understandable, compelling desire–to not be eaten alive. Then the book provides plenty of thrills. Unfortunately, quite a bit of patience is required of the reader before arriving at that point.