Contains spoilers for The Shadow of the Gods.
The sequel to what quickly became my favorite new read of 2022, The Hunger of the Gods continues the legacy of the Bloodsworn Saga with its fantastic cast of characters set in the Battle-Plain in a story influenced and inspired by Norse sagas and mythology.
After Lik-Rifa is released back into the world, a world where she is the only god, the world will be forever changed. With the dragon-god unleashed upon the world, Elvar and the surviving Battle-Grim find a possible solution in a book of forbidden magic, giving them the power to resurrect the slain wolf-god Ulfrir. Orka and the Bloodsworn are reunited, the end of The Shadow of the Gods revealing that not only does Orka know the warband, but she was the Skullsplitter, the legendary chief of the Bloodsworn. After the battle at Rotta’s chamber and Vol’s kidnapping, the warband are singularly focused on retrieving her and exacting their vengeance. Finding Orka bloodied and distraught following the butchery of the host at Grimholt, both groups must assess their courses of action.
The characters we have been following since the beginning of The Shadow of the Gods have to adapt and face the new realities of their world. Elvar has to quickly come to terms with Agnar’s death and Lik-Rifa’s escape. The hold of the blood oath she swore has not disappeared, and her task of helping Uspa save her son remains unfinished. She has to rally the Battle-Grim, suddenly leaderless, to help fulfill this seemingly impossible task that will lead them after Lik-Rifa and her savage followers.
Orka is unwavering in her quest to track down where Breca has been taken. We continue to get glimpses of her life before she stepped away from the Bloodsworn with Thorkel to start their life together. Readers also got confirmation that not only was Thorkel a Berserkir, but Orka is an Úlfhéðnar. That she left the Bloodsworn, why she left, and now how she and those who fought alongside her must deal with the sudden reality of being face to face again.
Varg continues his story as the newcomer to the Bloodsworn. Aspects of it are seen when Orka reunites with the Bloodsworn and he sees what she truly meant to the warband. Varg continues to find his place within the warband, not just as an initiate, but proving himself a valuable member while also being the newcomer and endearing himself further as “No-Sense.” Also further learning what it is to be Tainted, both accepting that aspect of himself that has this immense cultural stigma, not unlike being a thrall, while also slowly learning to understand and control this power that is inside him.
The Hunger of the Gods makes an interesting choice, adding the Biórr and Gunðarr as point of view characters. Gunðarr gives us a look inside the mind of a sniveling coward and his running internal monologue. It’s truly despicable and is written incredibly well. He is opportunistic, cunning in his self-preservation, and utterly without morals or honor. We get to see it all play out from his perspective as he tries to connive his way around Skalk the Galdurman and the politics of Queen Helka’s court. His internal monologue with himself is both morosely humorous and remarkably insightful, with glimpses of a person who knows exactly what he is, but continues to reinforce this superiority complex that he nearly fully believes. They are characteristics that aren’t necessarily novel, but the ways in which Gwynne handles it, particularly with the internal dialogue, feels fresh and very well handled.
Similarly, Biórr shows us an antagonist, but more than that, shows someone who fiercely believes in the cause he is fighting for, but grappling with the choices he had to make to see them through. How far is he willing to compromise to see that dream actualized, of a world where all Tainted are free and those who enslaved them are punished? Biórr’s betrayal of Agnar, and thus of Elvar, both weigh on him in different ways, and how that ebbs and flows during his story is really interesting. His loyalty to the Raven-Feeders and belief in their purpose behind Lik-Rifa drives him, but Biórr is a character that struggles, and from the perspective of his story, we get to see that play out. Both Gunðarr and Biórr’s perspectives give the reader a unique look into the dynamics at play within the “other camps” of Queen Helka and those following Lik-Rifa, adding to the tension by following plans and machinations as they are formulated.
The villains of the Bloodsworn Saga are even more insidious in The Hunger of the Gods. Gwynne does a very good job of creating a world where characters live within the blurred lines of right and wrong, where difficult compromises and brutal choices sometimes have to be made. Even so, between uneasy alliances and the compromises, the true villains are something special. A perfect example is Skalk the Galdurman, who continues to be a dark, visceral mirror to Merlin of Camelot if the famed wizard was instead twisted and cruel and utterly ruthless in his selfish efforts. Ilska and her Raven-Feeders are similarly cruel, but it is the complexity of power and madness of Lik-Rifa that truly shines as Gwynne crafts a terrifying and enigmatic entity that is at the same time unpredictable and
The world of Vigrið felt just as diverse as when I read The Shadow of the Gods, but much more familiar. The Battle-Plain is not a small setting, but it is far more contained that other epic fantasy settings and that causes each location to feel much more intimate and known. It means I instantly remember the sense of Darl and the feel of Snakavik. The expansion in the later book to Iskidan to the south adds to that wonder, and makes me excited about the possibility of further exploration in Book 3 or even additional books set within Gwynne’s setting. One thing I love is the author’s use of stories as a tool to tell the mythology of the world. Whether it’s a folktale, a song, or a retelling of a great legend; that was the style of how mythology and legends were created and evolved in Norse cultures. Just as importantly in the Bloodsworn Saga, it doesn’t always matter if the stories are true or not, the stories are told and retold, and that is how the world develops.
The story weaves itself together and around the characters so unbelievably beautifully. It felt reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire, but so much more contained and well planned. Characters’ threads would weave together, touching or intersecting at points without it ever feeling convoluted. Moments such as Drekr being the target of Orka’s fury, appearing at Uskutreð alongside the Raven-Feeders to face the Battle-Grim, or Gunðarr coming face to face with Varg and the Bloodsworn and being left alive, knowing that Lif has sworn to kill him, all serve to build the fabric of these stories. It all adds to the feel of the threads of fate being strong in the Battle-Plain, and the characters that matter often find themselves swirling around one another. Having fewer point of view characters, and fewer characters in general, meant everyone felt more actualized and authentic, and I found myself more invested in the characters and the story. In A Song of Ice and Fire, it was difficult to get invested in the characters, partly because they are killed off almost frivolously at points, but there are simply too many to know whether they are actually important or worth becoming invested in. In the Bloodsworn Trilogy, the characters that are developed all have a meaningful part to play in the story. None of it feels token, and it also doesn’t feel overdone. Supporting characters aren’t given absurd amounts of text, but they are allowed to appear as thoughtful and nuanced participants in the story. And as the story is far more contained, it allows those characters to play their roles visibly without taking attention away from the main players. I know the members of the Battle-Grim as well as those of the Bloodsworn. I can recognize the names of Skalk’s lackeys. I have an emotional response whenever Elvar’s family is mentioned. It all makes me feel more connected to the story because I’m instantly drawn to emotions for different groups or characters, whereas in large books with pages and pages of characters, I often have to remind myself who I’m even reading about and why they matter.
The Hunger of the Gods is a brilliant follow up to The Shadow of the Gods. It hits all the right story beats, continues with the themes and the feel of the first book that caused me to fall in love with these characters and their stories. It continues to explore the world and the stories were just as engaging and enticing. I can say it exceeded my expectations for a sequel, and now carries the burden of having caused my expectations for the final book in the trilogy to be very high. For readers who were first drawn into John Gwynne’s world and the stories of the warriors and heroes who wander the Battle-Plain, The Hunger of the Gods is the next part in the epic saga, and I dare say even better than the first.
The Hunger of the Gods is written by John Gwynne, and is published by Orbit.
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