A Gathering of Ravens – Scott Oden

“The storm howled out of the west like the terrible voice of God, shouting down the heretics who doubted the coming Apocalypse.”

The last kin of (a version of) Grendel – the monster in Beowulf – is on a mission to wreak vengeance on his brother’s killer. Along the way, he toys with a Norse warrior turned monk and his young apprentice, little knowing the impact one of them will have on both his quest and his unnaturally long life.

As the trail leads from Denmark to Ireland, the reader is treated to ancient myths meeting the rise of Christianity, in a tale of gods, kings and monsters, unlikely alliances, revenge and recreating yourself and the world.

I do wish I’d enjoyed this book more than I did. There’s a lot to be liked about it, including the mix of history and myth and the effort to cast orcs as part of both. However, I must be honest: I found the whole thing just a bit of a slog. Not bad by any means – and I did finish it, after all! – but there was something that just fell flat for me about the whole thing.

The characters, for instance, are either monstrous (well, on purpose!) and therefore unlikeable (mostly), or in my view just a bit… damp. I could not fathom the motivations of at least one main character, and therefore had very little empathy for dangers then encountered. As the story progresses, we switch from unpronounceable Norse names to a long list of old Irish, but as none of these characters are really there for any reason other than to further the plot, it just became an effort to remember who was who.

As for that plot, I found it a little too linear: creature seeks revenge. Other character is dragged along for the ride. Perhaps with something more involved, I would have been too. I did like the historic period – c.1000 AD – and the attempts to show the new ‘Nailed God’ worshippers ousting the old, more pagan ways, but there was either not enough explanation, or just too much reliance on ‘because: faith’, and either way I felt… meh.

Thankfully, I seem to be in the minority on this one, if Goodreads reviews are anything to go by. I could sense the love and passion that had gone into the writing, even before I read the afterword about ‘the story that wouldn’t let go’, and the author’s aims – which were fab to read. But, alas, this one just wasn’t for me.

NetGalley eARC: 400 pages
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 4th June – 5th July 2017

My rating: 5/10 – just didn’t grab me, ymmv

Ben-Hur (2016)

Judah Ben-Hur is a pacifist prince in a Jerusalem being overtaken by Rome, until his adopted Roman brother, Messala, returns from the wars and falsely accuses Judah of treason. After 5 years as a galley slave, a shipwreck and chance meeting with a chariot racing team in town for the opening of the new ‘circus’ (arena) gives Judah a chance for revenge.

I’d suggest that the trailers for Ben-Hur have been quite clever in ramping up the action – that shipwreck, the iconic chariot race – and yet utterly fails to mention to the unwary that this is, in fact, something of a religious movie. Because there happens to be a local carpenter in the area, telling anyone who’ll listen that “love is the way”…! I wonder if this is the reason so many reviews are so dire?!

But then, the movie offers plenty of reasons to rate poorly anyway. The CGI is rather obvious, as is the tale of redemption being played out. That said, the action and tension are reasonably well handled – right up until the preachy last act, sort of glued on after that chariot race.

Ah yes, the chariot race. It starts well, but to be honest the tension just didn’t last for me as it kept going. The necessary speed of the thing goes from ‘wow’ to ‘wait, did it finish?’. It doesn’t help that the CGI is quite in your face, nor the knowledge that the 1959 version is one of the classic scenes of cinema, ever – and was pretty much just done for real. This? Meh, in comparison.

Overall, though, it wasn’t actually as dire as I’d feared. I do like Roman history – even if it is horrendously brutal (more in suggestion than gore on screen, right enough, but still a bit of a shock for a 12A). Still, the story isn’t really presented as well as it could have been given the scope, alas, making the raison d’etre of the piece really just those two big action scenes. Hmm.

Released: 7th September 2016
Viewed: 9th September 2016
Running time: 125 minutes
Rated: 12A but quite gory and violent

My rating: 5/10