‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is the first book in John Gwynne’s ‘Bloodsworn Saga’, a new epic fantasy series inspired by Norse mythology. It tells an excellent, brutal tale, punctuated throughout by a sense of unease. The world Gwynne creates is cruel and unflinching, with no safety for the characters within. This is definitely a read for epic fantasy fans who like their stories on the bloodier side.
The land of Vigrid has been shattered by the fall of the gods, driven to extinction by war. In the broken remains, power-hungry Jarls feud for dominance, and monsters – remnants of the dead gods – stalk the lands. Amidst this chaos, Orka, a wife and mother, tries to eke out a living for her family, staying away from the politicking Jarls. Varg, a fugitive thrall, tries to find justice for his sister. And Elvar, daughter of a noble bloodline, rejects her heritage and goes in search of battle fame. Each are very different, living very separate lives – but something is rising, a dormant power believed dead that could spell the end of Vigrid once and for all.
Unusually for a novel with multiple perspectives, each of Gwynne’s protagonists is equally strong, with an equally compelling storyline. It can be a little difficult at times to keep each character straight – there are a lot of names, some of them very similar (like Elvar and Einar) – but once this is established, each plotline makes a worthy contribution. Orka has retired from the mercenary life, settling down with her husband and son and focusing on raising her family. Her son, Breca, is a sweet child, one constantly going out of his way to save animals and trying to make people do the right thing. In contrast, Orka is a tough, fierce woman, a warrior who may no longer be actively fighting, but who still analyses every situation like a war. Her love for her family is overwhelming and she’ll do anything to protect them. Orka is regularly rash, but she’s an incredibly strong fighter and, despite a lack of regard for human life, she does have a moral compass pointing in more or less the right direction.
Varg is undoubtedly the nicest of the protagonists. He’s spent most of his life as a thrall – a slave to a master’s bidding. His escape has led to a bounty on his head and him being named a murderer, but really all Varg wants is justice for his sister. Varg is constantly getting into situations well over his head, but he has a desperate will to survive and a generous dollop of luck. Varg ends up joining a band of mercenaries, the Bloodsworn, almost by accident, but once there he finds himself with friendship for the first time in his life. The ensuing moral battle between justice for his sister and loyalty to his new friends is beautifully written,as is Varg’s struggle to fight and kill when really all he wants is peace. Varg has the most complete character arc over the course of the novel, so it will be interesting which direction he goes in in the sequel.
Elvar starts the novel as a bit of a mystery. She’s a member of the Battle Grim, another band of mercenaries, but her place isn’t quite established. She also has a mysterious bodyguard, Grend, steadfastly loyal but looked upon with caution by the rest of the Battle Grim. Elvar is another fierce warrior, but unlike Orka it’s initially less clear what she’s fighting for. As the novel progresses, more about Elvar’s past is revealed, and her precarious position in the Battle Grim starts to make sense. Beyond anything, Elvar desires freedom – a desire which many can empathise with.
Gwynne’s worldbuilding is excellent, although this is definitely a novel which benefits from regularly referring to a map. Vigrid is a land divided into sections, each ruled by a Jarl – a powerful warrior. There’s also a Queen, Helga, trying to move away from the feudal system to a more united reign – going about this, naturally, by being stronger than all the rest. The magic system, a minor part, is based on the defeated gods – some people have a remnant of the gods’ powers in their blood, making them known as the Tainted. These people are collared and controls, treated as lower than the thrall slaves. The Tainteds’ powers depend on the god they inherited them from, but are always related to battle. Gwynne avoids info-dumps,instead spreading this information across the novel and allowing the reader to infer it. This allows the novel to flow smoothly, although at the expense of a small amount of confusion as all of the new terms are introduced.
The ending is excellent. A novel with three such separate plotlines is hard to end satisfactorily, but Gwynne manages it, each plotline ending neatly but with clear potential for future development.
Overall, ‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is an exceptionally strong epic fantasy novel, packed with Norse mythology and with three equally strong character arcs. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the sequel. Recommended to all fans of epic fantasy and Norse mythology.
Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Orbit
Hardback: 6th May 2021