THE SHADOW OF THE GODS by John Gwynne (BOOK REVIEW)
Fantasy fans, John Gwynne is back and this time he’s brought all the monsters with him.
The Shadow of the Gods is the first book in The Bloodsworn saga, a Norse inspired tale of blood and vengeance. In a world where gods have fought and died and in their wake opened a pit unleashing monsters of land, sea and sky, surviving is no easy task to say the least. The lands of Vigrið and the Battle-Plain are a perilous place to call a home, it is a place where Jarls plot to become the most powerful, where mercenaries battle for gold and fame, where war is an ever looming threat. It’s a grim, harsh, unforgiving world and it breeds the hardest of people – you either mercilessly kill or be killed. No hesitations, no second chances.
Our story centres around three main protagonists journeying through this deadly terrain, each set on their own vital quest. Orka, a huntress who longs for a peaceful life, yet fate won’t let her have it, and when she loses all she’ll stop at nothing to get it back. Elvar, a warrior amongst the Battle-Grim mercenaries, a young woman who seeks battle fame and glory, but at what cost? Lastly, Varg, once a thrall and now a member of the infamous Bloodsworn mercenaries who are his key to vengeance, discovers what it takes to truly be a warrior.
‘Battle-fame is nothing; it is chaff on the wind. Bonds of love, of kinship, of passion, of friendship: that is what we should all be yearning for.’
From the Faithful and the Fallen series to the Of Blood and Bone trilogy John Gwynne’s characters have never failed to hold a special place in my heart, and The Shadow of the Gods is no exception. Yet let me make this apparent, the characters you will find in this book are a far cry from the heroes of Gwynne’s previous works. There are no heroes here, and there are no good deeds. These are characters with grit, with hardened hearts and an affinity for violence. From our three main protagonists to the many eclectic members of The Battle-Grim and The Bloodsworn, these are people presented with hard choices, cold and cruel circumstances, and they are honed to do what must be done. However, it is easy to love and become attached to them all because at the end of the day they all fight for a cause I or you can believe in, they fight for love, for friendship, for family, for each other. These have always been strong themes represented in Gwynne’s books and it is something I believe his readers are universally drawn to – this may be a story of monsters and shield walls but it is also about found families and it’s told with plenty of heart.
I’m almost afraid to list my favourite characters here because well…I don’t wish to jinx their chances of survival in future instalments. You see Gwynne is also known as the slayer of characters, a monster who revels in his readers’ pain! However, I cannot write this review without mentioning a character who has easily shot straight into my all time favourite female protagonists, in fact I believe she’s a character who could rival The Bloody-Nine from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. Meet Orka, my beloved morally grey, ruthless, fierce, loyal, and protective huntress. She is a character who I dearly cherish, a mother who is only made stronger by the love she has for her child, a woman who is both capable of savagely killing and of loving. She is to be protected at all costs, and rest assured I will be keeping a close eye on Mr Gwynne. No one messes with my Orka.
‘Orka shrugged, a puff of misted breath as she thought on it. ”All is lies,” she murmured. “They call this the age of peace, because the ancient war is over and the gods are dead, but if this is peace…” She looked to the skies, clouds low and heavy, snow falling in sheets now, and back at the blood-soaked corpses. “This is the age of storm and murder…”’
Aside from the main protagonists, there were also many of the side characters from both The Battle-Grim and The Bloodsworn who I became particularly fond of. In both mercenary bands men and women stand side by side, as equals, as sworn comrades, and I commend the author for delivering a Norse tale where women are defined by their deeds, not by their sex. Throughout the book we are treated to Gwynne’s superb iconic battle scenes, ones where a warrior’s true grit is tested in a shield wall, where skill is matched in close one on one combat. Yet it is in the quieter scenes, those campfire side moments where Svig and Einar Half-Troll provide comic banter, or where Grend silently sat by Elvar’s side, or perhaps even when the characters were amongst the bones of the dead gods and they each feel the power, the majesty of legends, where I truly began to see beneath these characters’ skin.
Throughout this book we never fall into a sense of security, there were many scenes which conveyed a sense of foreboding, an eerie atmosphere which instantly put me on edge. Gwynne‘s prose is a remarkable blend of atmospheric, almost poetic, and strikingly grisly. The Battle-Plain is a land of rural beauty but we can never forget it is also a land of tooth and claw. The Shadow of the Gods has some sheer delights – Trolls, Frost-Spiders, Tennur and the Tainted roam these lands, and their conflict with humans is bloody and brutal. The prose also encompasses many Norse terms ranging from clothing, and armour, to even the ships. These do become clear as Gwynne takes care to explain what they mean, however I’m a reader who needs to visualise the world and so many terms I chose to look up for further clarity. I hope that the final copy includes a glossary to easily give additional information, and dare I say that a future illustrated edition is made. That would be perfect.
‘The battle-storm raged around her, sounds merging, a deafening roaring, muted din that echoed inside her helm as steel clashed, shields splintered and warriors screamed. All was blood and death.’
As we reached the end of the novel, believe me dear reader I thought I had all the threads figured out, I basked in my own smugness thinking I knew the mind of this author by now, but oh how wrong was I? I was well and truly tricked, but in the best way. Well damn, who would see those twists coming? John Gwynne is not an author, he’s a madman!
Madman or genius? I’m still undecided, but I do know that in every review I write for Gwynne’s books I unashamedly gush, and this is because he consistently reminds me of all that I love in the fantasy genre. The Shadow of the Gods is an action packed cinematic read. It feels historically authentic, Viking-esque, yet wonderfully fantastical too. A tale of monsters and magic, Gods and legends, friendship and oaths, blood and vengeance – Gwynne has certainly done it again, if not raised the bar even higher.
ARC provided by Nazia at Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
The Shadow of the Gods is released 6th May 2021 but you can preorder it now!