(Editor’s Note: Kindle Vella publishes serial stories to read one short episode at a time.)
The fantasy action/adventure novel Island of the Dead by Brian Keene is an old-fashioned story hearkening back to the days of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. In fact, the main character is a barbarian named Einar.
The first three episodes of Island of the Dead are available free on Kindle Vella.
Episode 1 opens with the scarred, injury-riddled Einar enslaved on a war galley transporting soldiers and a mysterious biological weapon on a stormy sea. Einar is about to initiate his plan to escape but stops when another slave tells him, “I know what you’re thinking.”
Episode 2 introduces us to Chuy, a merchant and the slave who guessed Einar’s thoughts of escape. Their conversation reveals the reasons why the men have been conscripted and assigned to row soldiers and equipment off to war. The episode ends with Chuy asking Einar, “What’s your plan, then?”
In Episode 3, Einar enacts his plan to escape, but he’s interrupted when a violent storm starts tearing apart the ship. Before the natural (or is it unnatural?) disaster strikes, a soldier refers to “a very special cargo … that will help us win the war.”
And that’s where the free episodes end. With Kindle Vella, you can purchase more episodes via tokens. The cost is $1.99 per 200 tokens, and the price per episode varies. I’ve read all 18 available episodes of Island of the Dead and still have 53 tokens left from my original 200. Each episode only takes a few minutes to read.
I will tell you that the mysterious “special cargo” referenced in Episode 2 is “a large wooden crate … covered in strange runes,” and the contents are revealed in Episode 7.
As recipient of the 2014 World Horror Grandmaster Award, Keene is more known for his horror work like Bram Stoker Award-winning The Rising and Bram Stoker Award-nominated Earthworm Gods. But the man writes fantasy just as effectively.
I immediately liked Einar despite his gruff exterior. He’s an archetypal barbarian character but with an intelligence and a sensitivity that I didn’t expect. For example, in an Episode 2 exchange between Chuy and Einar, Chuy observes, “You’re from the north. The barbarian tribes.” Einar responds, “Others call us that. We do not.” I love the subtlety of the reply that shows this man will not let others define him.
Island of the Dead is definitely worth the read for fans of Conan, The Bastard Series by Keene and Steven L. Shrewsbury, or The Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence. Keene even tosses in references to Rogan from The Bastard Series and the Siqqusim from The Rising series.
Overall, Island of the Dead is a classic sword-and-sorcery tale steeped in horror and filled with the grit of an Eastwood Western and the vibe of Skull Island minus King Kong.