‘The Witch’s Heart’ is a retelling of Norse mythology, chronicling the life of the witch Angrboda from the time of her imprisonment by Odin to the end of the gods at Ragnarok. It’s slow to start, but packs an emotional punch – likely more so for anyone who has experienced motherhood.
When a witch refuses to provide Odin with a prophecy of the future, he casts her into the fire and cuts out her heart. However, she survives. Left injured and powerless, she flees to a cave in the mountains of Jotunheim, renaming herself Angrboda and setting out to rebuild her life. There, she is found by the trickster god Loki, who returns her heart. Gradually, Angrboda falls for her unlikely helper, leading to three highly unusual children. However, their fragile peace is threatened by the return of Angrboda’s prophetic powers – and the greed of Odin and the other Aesir to use them. When the treachery of the gods reaches new heights, Angrboda must decide whether to leave her family to their prophesised fate – or to try and reshape the future.
Angrboda is a fascinating character. At the start of the story she’s a mystery even to herself, remembering only her torture by Odin. The more she discovers, the more it becomes apparent that she’s both ancient and powerful – but she struggles between the dichotomy of her peaceful existence as a wife and mother, and her apparent past as a powerful and feared witch. Angrboda is strong, but the quiet sort of strong not often given widespread appreciation. She doesn’t fight any battles or seek any glory – instead, she maintains her home and raises her children and has strength in living exactly the life she wants to live. When that peace is disrupted, she uses her wits and seeks vengeance in a similarly quiet way -and her actions are all the more meaningful for it.
Angrboda has two main romantic relationships across the course of the book – one with Loki, and one with the giantess Skadi. Her relationship with Loki is innately unbalanced and always feels fragile, but Gornichec does well to weave in enough to show why Angrboda stays with him anyway. In contrast, her relationship to Skadi – a long friendship which eventually becomes something more – feels far more natural, although again it’s always clear it isn’t meant to last.
The more interesting relationships, however, are between Angrboda and her three children – Hel, Fenrir,and Jorgamund. Angrboda is widely known from Norse mythology as the mother of monsters – but from her perspective, she is merely a mother. Angrboda fears for her children as any mother would – especially as she is cursed to know their fates. Her fierce protection and desire to protect them above all with resonate with anyone who has experienced parenthood.
The story is split into three parts. The first, Angrboda’s life in Jotunheim, is the slowest and probably the least interesting, although it lays essential groundwork for the later action. The second is the part of Angrboda’s story I was least familiar with before reading this, and I found it fascinating uncovering the missing part of her mythos. There are also some heartbreaking moments. The third, very short part chronicles Ragnarok. This is the most emotionally hard hitting, and really elevates the story from a basic retelling to something with more depth.
Overall, ‘The Witch’s Heart’ is a solid addition to the growing genre of mythological retellings. It doesn’t quite have the impact of stories like Circe or Ariadne, but it’s an accomplished debut and a worthy addition to the shelves of any Norse mythology fan. Recommended for fans of retellings and stories of motherhood.
Thanks to NetGalley and Titan Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 4th May 2021