As surprising as it may seem, the thing that made The Shadow of the Gods first catch my eye was the cover art. Scrolling through social media and it was enough to make me look a little deeper. I then learned about John Gwynne as an author and read the synopsis for the book, and beyond intrigued, I was excited to see that the sequel was about to be released. Having just come from several book series where the style of “modern fantasy” was very apparent, it was surprisingly refreshing for The Shadow of the Gods to be the perfect blend of modern and classic fantasy. It weaves elements of storytelling that I first loved in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the mythology of Beowulf, and a wonder that filled the Aruthurian legends. Drawing inspiration from Norse mythology and culture, John Gwynne has crafted a deep and harsh world filled with terrifying monsters and stouthearted men and women alike, struggling to live after the great conflict left the gods dead and the world far more dangerous as a result.
The Shadow of the Gods follows three characters in their journeys across Vigrið. Elvar is a warrior earning her way as a member of the Battle-Grim, a warband notorious for hunting Tainted, those that carry the blood of the dead gods in their veins, granting them great and terrible powers. Shadowed by her hulking protector Grend, Elvar is keen to distinguish herself. Not satisfied with being given anything, only proving herself and earning her battle-fame will be enough to satisfy the young warrior.
Vard is a former thrall who fled to avenge the death of his sister, fighting for a place within the Bloodsworn, an elite warband with a bloody reputation. Vard’s story is that of finding brotherhood, a place where he is welcomed, not just useful in order to later be discarded. His quest to avenge his sister drives him, but through the story, he learns there is more to him than just vengeance, that he perhap has more to live for.
Orka is a retired warrior content to live a simple life until she returns home to find her husband murdered and her son taken. A woman of quiet, burning fury, Orka leaves with a singular goal, seeking revenge for her murdered husband and to save her son, stopping at nothing to rescue him from his captors. Orka’s history is singularly mysterious and murky for the reader, with glimpses and threads revealed through the choices and words of this grim, brutal woman. Perhaps the most compelling, she is an easily understood character in the very simple way that she views the world and how she relentlessly fights for what she wants.
In a world where men live a brutal life of blood and struggle, vaesen and Tainted alike threaten their existence. Monsters of terrible power and nightmarish bearing stalk the earth, drawn out of the vaesen pit after the conflict that left the gods slain or imprisoned. And there are those who still carry the blood of the gods, their distant offspring, who appear human but carry the dangerous power within them. God-Touched, they have the last remnants of the power of the children of Snaka, the father of the gods. The Berserkirs, who carry the blood of Berser in their veins; offspring of Hundur, with the gifts of the Hound; Úlfhéðnar, the ravenous children of Ulfrir the wolf-god; and many, many others.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to dive into a story that has multiple point of view characters across different parts of the story who are not interacting with each other. Following a wide reaching story across distances and characters is something many authors fail at keeping engaging, but Gywnne kept my attention and my focus. Each narrative felt consistent and compelling, never straying into overly complex twists that convoluted the story or forced me to reread sections.
I love Norse history and mythology, and a story that brings both together well is a beautiful thing. It is a masterful intersection of Norse mythology, their culture and history, and an original setting that feels vibrant and real. John Gwynne has firsthand understanding of so much of the material as a history buff and Viking reenactor, and it all comes through with the craft used to build this story. Elements of myths and legends, from Ragnarok to Völuspá to Beowulf, have their impact on the style and the story, as well as the practical details that I can only imagine came from extensive reenactment and focused study on culture and society.
Gwynne’s approach to magic in The Shadow of the Gods is perfect both for the role of magic and otherworldly powers played in Norse culture, but also in the current climate of fantasy. More and more the concept of “needing” hard magic over soft magic (clear established rules and boundaries for magic versus loose ones where the rules and limitations aren’t always clear) is becoming the norm. Magic is powerful and dangerous and largely outside the realm of what most characters understand. It is only accessible to a few, and as a result is both respected and feared in equal measures. There is also the interesting dynamic of having one form of magic stem from the lingering influences of the dead gods, those that carry those bloodlines are hated and hunted, either killed or forced into a life as a thrall. Even seasoned warriors fear those with magic, but it plays an important role in the world, binding oaths or granting supernatural power. This is a cornerstone of Norse mythology, whether it is the magic of runes, seers, or magic weapons, magic comes from powerful sources and is mysterious, dangerous, and even perilous. This otherworldly and mysterious aspect of magic is also a feature of Arthurian legends, and the commonalities between Norse sagas and the Matter of Britain are more numerous than you might think at first. I remember first finding a translation of Beowulf when I was no older than twelve, and I read the saga from beginning to its end. This was when nearly every translation was academic, and not for ease of reading. That would come much later with the publication of Tolkien’s translation. I remember even then, it kickstarted a surge of excitement and joy for me as I consumed every bit of media and history text about Vikings and Norse history and mythology that I could find. Years later, reading even the first few pages of The Shadow of the Gods reawakened that same joy for me. Following characters who could have been plucked from the numbers of Beowulf’s own followers or been heroes of their own epics, I found myself reading their tales with the same fervor. The Bloodsworn Saga has drawn me in, with the narrative craft and storytelling enterprise of John Gwynne, he has woven a saga about characters of nuance and depth in a world that feels both familiar and new, one that yearns to be explored and have its stories heard.
The Shadow of the Gods is written by John Gwynne, and is published by Orbit Books.
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