Everyone has a few “go to” authors. You know that ones I am talking about – no matter what they publish, you pre-order it from Amazon and wait to have it show up on your door on release date. They rarely disappoint you and their voice becomes a familiar companion on the page. Stephen King is one of those authors for me – and so is Brian Keene. His writing is like an ice-cold beer on a hot day – it goes down smooth and always satisfies. His latest release, “A Gathering of Crows” is no exception to that rule.
In “A Gathering of Crows”, the small town of Brinkley Springs is besieged one night by five dark strangers. These strangers, seen first in the guise of crows, seal the town off from the outside world and proceed to cut a wide swath of carnage and destruction through its inhabitants. The only person standing in their way is Levi Stoltzfus. Levi is a wanderer who happens to be a practitioner of Pow-Wow (a form of ancient magic still found in the backwoods and hill of rural America). He alone understands the true nature of the threat they are all facing, and is the only one with a chance to stop the destruction.
There were two things that I particularly liked about this book. First was the way Keene gave us a glimpse at many of the inhabitants of the town. While you follow a core group of townsfolk through the story, you also spend a bit of time with many of the people who don’t survive the destruction. This could have easily devolved into a boring procession of gratuitous death scenes. Instead, each scene had a bit of heart and added a layer of character to Brinkley Springs. (There were also some very inventive murder methods used – but that was really just the icing on top of the cake.)
The second thing I loved was the way the story of the Roanoke colony was incorporated into this narrative. Keene did a masterful job of taking that historical mystery and using it not only to explain what was happening to Brinkley Springs, but also to add a concrete connection to the world we live in. It was an inspired choice for the story, and really served to tie it all together for me and make the book a great reading experience.
Those like me, who have become devoted Keene readers, will find that this story is set firmly within the overall tapestry that he has been weaving through his books from the very beginning. Levi will be familiar to longtime Keene readers as a character that appeared in “Ghost Walk”. In “Gathering of Crows” we learn a little more about Levi, and get to see a little more about where he came from and what makes him tick. (In the afterword, Keene promises that this is not the last we will see of Levi – a very good thing.) We are also given a few more clues about “The Thirteen” and “The Labyrinth” in this story. While these revelations serve to move the entire mythos forward, they are more tease than testimony. Still – you can’t help but feel that Keene is moving ever so slowly closer to pulling back the curtain entirely and laying out the world of the Labyrinth for us. That will be a fun book to read. (For those that haven’t read much of Keene’s work – I may as well have written this paragraph in ancient Sumerian. Take a few months, read through his back catalog, and then come back – it will all make much more sense then. I promise).
On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss Keene’s work as pure splatter-fest horror. While there is nothing wrong with that description, there is a subtle and effective storyteller behind each of the novels. This was a quick and comfortable read. Many people take that as a sign of “lack of depth” – but in reality, it’s part of Keene’s genius. It’s HARD to write stories that ring true, both in tone and character, the way his do. Trust me – I’ve suffered through enough bad fiction to know that telling a story simply and directly is not an easy task. Keene does it with an ease and fluidity that seems so natural and real that you don’t realize you have just plowed through 150 pages of a novel until you look up at the clock and realize that it’s 4AM in the morning. I enjoyed being able to lose myself in a story that way – “A Gathering of Crows” was a great way to spend a few days. My only complaint is that I will now have to wait until February 2011, when his next novel - “Entombed” – is released, to get my next fix. Until then…
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