A GATHERING OF RAVENS: An Interview with Scott Oden

A murder is what you call a group of crows, and I'm guessing if they were ravens, you could call it an orc rave. No. I guess not. But it sounds cool. Scott Oden has been in the game for a while, and was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the new book coming out June 20th from Thomas Dunne, A GATHERING OF RAVENS.


-The Interview-

SG - Grimnir is the main character in A GATHERING OF RAVENS. But is he a hero?

SO - Only by accident.  But, he's not one-hundred percent villainous, either.  Grimnir is the last of his kind; his people were known by many names, from Scandinavia to Ireland and even deep into the Continent, but to us he is an Orc.  And he is the mold by which others were cast: savage, murderous, profane; a thief, if need be, and a liar, given over to irrational fits of rage.  But, despite all this, even Grimnir has a redeeming quality: if, somehow, you can convince him to give his word then that oath to you is as good as if it were chiseled in stone.  The whole story, in fact, exists because he swore an oath to avenge a fallen kinsman.  And, no matter what, he will see that oath fulfilled.

SG - What themes did you want to play with in the book?

SO - The primary theme that runs through A Gathering of Ravens is the conflict between the Old Ways, represented by Grimnir's fervent paganism, and the New Ways, embodied in the rising power of Christianity.  Grimnir's world, the shadow-world of myth and legend, is dying; the alfar and the dvergar -- elves and dwarves -- are slowly withdrawing from our world.  Even the spirits of stock and stone, the landvaettir, are falling prey to the scouring influence of this new religion.  It is a ragnarok, of sorts, with Grimnir's world passing away as our modern world is born from its ashes.  He -- and we -- bear witness to this ending and rebirth.

Other themes include the binding power of oaths, and how unlikely friendships can spring even from confrontational adversity.

SG - This is your fourth novel and the second with Thomas Dunne. What can we expect from you in the future? More Grimnir?

SO - More Grimnir, more Greeks, and maybe a bit with some sentient mice.

On the immediate horizon is the follow up to A Gathering of Ravens, which I'm calling "Twilight of the Gods" -- Grimnir clashes with berserkers, a deathless shield-maiden, a dragon, and a teen-aged girl who does too good a job impersonating him.  After that, I have a few ideas I'm kicking around: a third Grimnir novel, a couple of historicals, and something that looks suspiciously like Redwall as written by Robert E. Howard.

SG - What intrigues you about orcs?

SO - I wrote a whole blog post last year about this very thing, so if you'd be so kind as to allow me to paraphrase and plagiarize myself:

The Orc is a powerful symbol: the ur-Barbarian, the Other who lives and thrives on the edges of polite society. The Orc is cunning, savage, hard to kill. The Orc represents chaos and change; it threatens the status quo and offers nihilism, dystopia, and rapine as valid alternatives. To a writer, there is much to explore within the context of the Orc.

But, a core criticism of Orc-themed fiction almost since its inception is this: how are they different from Humans? What sets them apart? And if they’re close enough to Human for Human readers to understand and sympathize with, then why not just make them Human? Why must they be Orcs?  The criticism has merit.  In Tolkien, for example, the Uruk-hai of Minas Morgul and Cirith Ungol are uncomfortably close analogs to modern men – the type of profane and long-suffering machine-gun fodder JRRT encountered in the trenches during WWI. Contrast this to Mary Gentle’s Grunts, where Orcs are brutish and almost childlike, tusked and green-skinned barbarians with a gallows sense of humor. In Stan Nicholls’ Orcs trilogy, we return to a Tolkien-like sense of purity, with Orcs that are quarrelsome and violent, but functionally no different than their Human enemies. Opposite this portrayal would be Morgan Howell’s vision from the Queen of the Orcs trilogy, where they are Noble Savages patterned after the Iroquois of central New York. Though superficial elements such as appearance differ, every Orc who has thus appeared as a protagonist in fiction is imminently recognizable to readers – as a guttersnipe dough-boy, a slapstick barbarian, an idealized trope, or a CGI’d Human. Ultimately, the Orc is Us, though writ large and defined by either subtle characterization or a Pagliaccian sense of the absurd.

SG - Favorite SFF archetype?

SO - The Barbarian.  The fell-handed loner from the fringes of society who lives by his wits, his sword, and his own code -- which is not, you might say, copacetic with the laws of the realm.  Most of my characters have an element of this archetype.  I blame a childhood spent reading the Conan tales by REH.

SG - Favorite scene from the book you can talk about?

SO - Oh, man . . . all of them?  I seriously love this whole book.  Though, if I must choose, the scene I'm most proud of as a writer comes at the bridge between parts one and two (the book is divided into parts named for the geographic region where they occur: Part or "Book" One is set in Denmark; Book Two is in Southern England, around the city of Bath; Books Three and Four are set in Ireland).  Grimnir and his captive, Étaín, confront a trio of dwarf brothers and enter one of the hallowed shrines to Yggðrasil, the tree that connects the Nine Worlds of Norse myth.  It's got tension, humor, some interesting imagery, and even twelve stanzas of Norse poetry.  I look over it, now, and I'm like, "who wrote that?!"

SG - Best writing advice you ever received?

SO - Finish what you start.  No matter if it sucks.  No matter if you have no passion for it, or if your passion for it has waned with time.  Finish it.  This I got from Lawrence Block's excellent book on writing, Telling Lies For Fun and Profit.  That, along with Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and Betsy Lerner's The Forest For The Trees, sits at my elbow as I write -- the only three writing books I allow on my desk.

A GATHERING OF RAVENS releases everywhere June 20th.

From the cover: 

To the Danes, he is skraelingr; to the English, he is orcnéas; to the Irish, he is fomoraig. He is Corpse-maker and Life-quencher, the Bringer of Night, the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. He is Grimnir, and he is the last of his kind―the last in a long line of monsters who have plagued humanity since the Elder Days.

Drawn from his lair by a thirst for vengeance against the Dane who slew his brother, Grimnir emerges into a world that’s changed. A new faith has arisen. The Old Ways are dying, and their followers retreating into the shadows; even still, Grimnir’s vengeance cannot be denied.

Taking a young Christian hostage to be his guide, Grimnir embarks on a journey that takes him from the hinterlands of Denmark, where the wisdom of the ancient dwarves has given way to madness, to the war-torn heart of southern England, where the spirits of the land make violence on one another. And thence to the green shores of Ireland and the Viking stronghold of Dubhlinn, where his enemy awaits.

But, unless Grimnir can set aside his hatreds, his dream of retribution will come to nothing. For Dubhlinn is set to be the site of a reckoning―the Old Ways versus the New―and Grimnir, the last of his kind left to plague mankind, must choose: stand with the Christian King of Ireland and see his vengeance done or stand against him and see it slip away?

Scott Oden's A Gathering of Ravens is an epic novel of vengeance, faith, and the power of myth.