By: John Gwynne
Genre: Norse Fantasy
Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Book Group
“There comes the shadow-dark dragon flying,
The gleaming serpent, up from the Dark-of-Moon Hills;
He flies over the plain, and in his pinions
He carries corpses” The Voluspa (John Gwynne, The Shadow of the Gods)
The Shadow of the Gods was my first foray into the fantasy world of John Gwynne. I was eager to read his work as I saw his other series, The Faithful and the Fallen, so well received by readers. Having read The Shadow of the Gods, I have no doubt as to why Mr. Gwynne’s work is so highly praised. He is a master of his craft, with sharp, crisp prose, weaving a brilliant Norse fantasy that is a gripping, page turning novel. I was transported into a completely immersive Norse world revolving around three expertly crafted main protagonists, their compelling and dangerous quests, and realistic, often brutal fight scenes. Children are being taken, parents slaughtered, and there are whispers of gods long thought to be dead, who may return. Toss in some gruesome creatures as well to complete the story. The Shadow of the Gods was sheer genius in its world building, character arcs, and use of magic, intertwined in the most accurate Norse world that I have read in fantasy.
The story revolves around three characters who live in the land of Vigrid. The first is Orka, a strong woman and once warrior, living with her husband Thorkel and son Breca on the outskirts of the small city of Fellur. I love strong strong female protagonists, and it doesn’t get much stronger than Orka. Next, we meet Varg, an escaped thrall (slave) running from the farm he was indentured too, after killing his master. The final protagonist is Elvar, a young woman of noble blood. She leaves behind her life of nobility to earn her status of battle fame among the Battle-Grim, a group of warriors who search for treasure, whether it be artifacts or individuals.
When Orka’s son is taken, she sets out on a perilous journey to find him. She is deadly with her axes, and gives no quarter to those who may have information as to where he may have been taken. I absolutely loved Orka and I think it’s because as a mother, I related to her desperation to find her son. As I was reading, I kept thinking, “how would you find your child in such a vast world?” I felt her despair, her anxiety, and her anger. Yes, Orka is a brutal warrior and does not hesitate to kill as she searches for Breca. While her killing was graphic, it also highlighted her amazing skills with her weapons, and her ability to take on multiple opponents. It was so well written. I understood Orka, I felt for her, and related to her.
Varg, the escaped thrall, is singularly focused on finding a Seider-witch perform a ceremony which will help him find his sister’s killers. It is one reason he killed his master and escaped when she was sold, thereby separating them. Varg’s driving force is revenge. It is his silent promise to his sister to find her killers and see them pay for what they did. He is taken in by a group of mercenaries called the Blood Sworn. Over time, Varg’s bravery, though sometimes acting without thinking, earns him their respect. I loved that his name becomes Varg No-Sense, as he will often rush into a situation without thinking it through.
Elvar, the noble daughter of a powerful thrall, left her family to escape an arranged marriage. She yearns to be a warrior and earn her battle fame. She and her constant bodyguard, Grend, join the Battle-Grim. They search for “coin” any way they can. Elvar can hold her own in a fight, but Grend is always beside her. He took an oath the protect her, and thus will follow her wherever she goes. When given an opportunity to leave the Battle-Grim and lead her own troup of warriors by her father, she turns him down. This is what she yearns for, the travel, the quests, and the fights.
Mr. Gwynne’s prose is sharp, effective, and so clear as to take the reader into the pages and into the story. Each chapter focuses on a different one of the three main protagonists. It is told in the third person narrative so the reader gets an overall picture of what each character faces. I thought the choice to tell the story in this manner was done exceptionally well. The reader can easily follow each journey. What is particularly interesting is that these characters never meet. While their stories are told separately, it does feel cohesive. They are all in the same world, even though their driving motives are different. I never felt that the story was disjointed. I enjoyed where chapters left off and eagerly awaited the next one where we find out what has happened to Orka, Varg, or Elvar. I also thought that each character having their own agenda worked very well: Orka, finding her son; Varg, revenge; Elvar; earning her status as a warrior. His use of Norse terminology was spot on and only added to the brilliance of the story telling.
Mr. Gwynne’s fight and battle descriptions were exceptionally well done. As mentioned, they are gory, so if that is something that disturbs a reader, you should know this beforehand. I found it was necessary to the story. He is building a Norse world, where proving oneself in battle is very important so they don’t view killing in the name of what they need to be wrong. Orka is searching for her son. She will kill to get information. Varg wants to put his sister at rest and find her killers. Joining the Blood Sworn, who have a Sieder-witch to perform this ceremony, is the way he will keep his silent promist. He fights as well for his cause. Elvar is the same, as she is out to prove she is worthy of the Battle-Grim and earn her rightful warrior status. These battles or skirmishes are not one-sided. Their opponents are armed and dangerous as well. It was an important part of the story, so I did not find it gratuitous or disturbing.
The world building was on par with the best in fantasy. Mr. Gwynne’s creation of this Norse world is nothing short of astounding. The reader is brought into the pages of the story and feels as if they are on the quests along with Orka, Varg, and Elvar. The cities and towns they encounter are so well constructed. There is the fortress with main hall where the ruling Jarl lives, and the smaller homes and shops that are collectively part of the towns and cities they come across. They are distinctly Norse in their construction and description, down to the elaborate carvings on the Jarl’s fortresses and mead halls. Mr. Gwynne assaults the readers senses with the smells and sounds of not only these places, but the areas where they camp along the way. They range from the smell of various types of food, the stench of human waste, and the sights and smells of forested areas. Viking boats are used and one feels the strain of rowing, especially on Elvar, but everyone does their part as part of the group. The clothing and the weapons are distinctly Norse, as each carries a seax, an axe, and a sword. The harsh weather conditions only added to the world building. It was often cold and snowy, and the reader could feel the cold seep in as our protagonists travel on to complete their quests.
The Shadow of the Gods was an outstanding epic Norse fantasy. There are so many intricacies that weave this story together. The characters are well fleshed out, with three main protagonists each on their own journey. While they don’t meet up, it’s never a confusing plot line as they all exist in the same world, just in different places. Orka was by far my favorite character as I felt closest to her as a mother on her on her quest to find her son. I understood her anger, frustration, sadness, and extreme focus on her task. I would do the same. Elvar and Varg were also well fleshed out and on completely different journeys, the former to achieve battle fame, and latter for revenge. I thought the narrative and prose were excellent, following each of them in different chapters and it was never confusing. On the contrary, I was eager to read about each one and catch up to where they were as the story progressed. There is plenty of action, which made for page turning excitement. There was never a time that I felt the story line dragged. The Norse world Mr. Gwynne created was so well crafted, it brings the reader right into the character’s journeys. The details of clothing, weapons, towns, and cities was simply brilliant. It is the finest Norse world I have ever read. The battle and fight scenes were very realistic, and there was blood and gore. Fighting in this type of world is not neat and clean, and Mr. Gwynne holds nothing back. It is an important part of the story which I never found disturbing. I highly recommend this book to fans of not only of Norse fantasy, but any genre of fantasy. I am looking forward to the next book, The Hunger of the Gods.
THE GREATEST SAGAS ARE WRITTEN IN BLOOD.
A century has passed since the gods fought and drove themselves to extinction. Now only their bones remain, promising great power to those brave enough to seek them out.
As whispers of war echo across the land of Vigrid, fate follows in the footsteps of three warriors: a huntress on a dangerous quest, a noblewoman pursuing battle fame, and a thrall seeking vengeance among the mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn.
All three will shape the fate of the world as it once more falls under the shadow of the gods.
Find out more about John Gwynne on his website: https://john-gwynne.com/
Purchase The Shadow of the Gods on Amazon