Interview with John Gwynne (SHADOW OF THE GODS)
John Gwynne studied and lectured at Brighton University. He’s been in a rock ‘n’ roll band, playing the double bass, travelled the USA and lived in Canada for a time. He is married with four children and lives in Eastbourne running a small family business rejuvenating vintage furniture. He is the author of the epic fantasy series The Faithful and the Fallen, Of Blood and Bone trilogy and his upcoming new series The Bloodsworn.
Welcome back to the Hive, John. Congratulations on the release of The Shadow of the Gods!
Thanks so much for the invite, Nils, it’s great to be back.
Is it nerve-wracking to know soon enough your new series will be out there in the wild?
Publication day always has its fair share of nerves. It’s like your child’s first day at school, and I always feel too close to my stories to really tell how they are going to be received. I just try and write books that I’d like to read, and then hope that there are people out there who agree with me.
Judging from all the early reviews, including mine, you have nothing to fear!
Are you planning to take part in any virtual events, or do you have any other plans to celebrate your release today?
This one is an unusual publication due to this strange new world we are living in. No public events such as book-signings, panels or conventions. My publishers have helped to organize a lot of on-line stuff, though, including interviews, guest blog posts and vlog appearances. Hopefully I’ll see some of you along the way.
I really enjoyed the Orbit live Q&A with yourself and K. S. Villoso. Look forward to seeing what others you have planned.
So, can you tell us a little bit about what readers can expect?
Okay, so, the Shadow of the Gods is book 1 of a new series, and my first book in a new world away from the Banished Lands. It’s set in a world called Vigrið, the Battle-Plain, and is heavily influenced by my love for Norse mythology. Specifically, Beowulf and Ragnarök were my starting points for this tale, my initial inspirations.
I hope that it feels markedly different from my previous books in its tone and world-setting, but there are also similarities. Family and friendship are themes that I will always write about, and you will find them here, although I’ve come at them from different angles than you find in my previous works.
Other things you should expect are: shield walls, longships, betrayal and vengeance, and a lot of monsters.
I can confirm right now, there are A LOT of monsters!!
John, we have to talk about your cover, which in my opinion is one of the best covers out there. I mean you can’t go wrong with a huge dragon really, can you? Marcus Whinney captured the beast’s ferocity perfectly! How involved were you during the design process? What was your reaction when you were shown the final image?
I’m so pleased you feel like that about the cover, Nils. I am over the moon with how it’s come out.
Cover art is one of my favourite parts of the writing/publishing process, and I’ve been fortunate to work with people who have been more than happy to involve me in the process. A lot of discussions went back and forth between myself and my editor, James Long, over this cover, and it was a lot of fun. Talking about that Norse tone and colour palette and brainstorming images that would capture something of what goes on in the pages. From the beginning I was keen that a dragon would be on the cover and James was as excited about that idea as I was. Even though we both had a good idea of what we wanted, we were all blown away when we saw Marcus Whinney’s first draft. It was a pick-your-jaw-up-off-the-floor moment.
I can relate, actually I think that’s what we all did when we saw it revealed. We will never tire of seeing dragons on covers.
So was it easy leaving behind the Banished Lands and the characters from your previous series The Faithful and the Fallen and Of Blood and Bone, and stepping into this new world of Vigrið and the Battle-Plain?
I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it did feel right. I’ve spent my whole writing career in the Banished Lands, the best part of twenty years since I started writing Malice and constructing the Banished Lands in my head. So, I was nervous about stepping out of that world, and away from characters who have come to feel almost-real to me.
And to me! They became like my friends!
But another part of me was excited about a new world, and I felt that it was time to try something new. I may well return at some point to the Banished Lands, but when I finished A Time of Courage it really felt like the right time to step away from that world and try something fresh. And although I was nervous about stepping into a new world, almost from the moment I started writing Orka’s first chapter I felt like I was returning home. I had a LOT of fun writing the first book and building this world and characters, just experimenting within the sandbox of Norse mythology.
You’ve said that the world in The Shadow of the Gods is inspired by tales of Ragnarok and Beowulf, I was wondering could you tell us a little bit more about how you drew inspiration from these stories? What aspects in particular were your favourite?
I grew up on tales of mythology – when I was a child I fell in love with the tales of Beowulf and Ragnarök, that end-of-days battle amongst the Norse gods and to my mind this book and series combines my love and passion for Norse mythology and history, merging the blood and grit of shield walls with the terror and thrill of monster hunting.
The first seed for this series began when I was reading the Poetic Edda, a collection of ancient Norse poems about Norse mythology. There is a beautiful passage in the Voluspa that talks about Ragnarök and the fall of the gods. And right at the very end of it, when the gods are dead and the sun is rising on a new world, the dragon Nidhoggr breaks free of his bonds beneath Ygdrassil, the World Tree, and he flies into the sky for the first time.
There comes the shadow-dark dragon flying,
The gleaming serpent, up from Dark-of-Moon Hills;
He flies over the plain, and in his pinions
He carries corpses
I thought, wow, that’s cool, and I also thought, I wonder what happens next? So that was the first seed of inspiration, and then it seemed natural to frame the story around Beowulf and his band of monster-hunting mercenaries.
The imagery in just those few lines is both aweing and terrifying, I can see why you were inspired now.
When I read your book I was impressed by the way you blended a historically authentic Viking-esque world, which I know is close to your heart being a Viking reenactor, with the fantastical. You use a lot of Norse-terms to add richness to your worldbuilding and then added monsters from the vaesen pit.
Was there any extra research you had to delve into for this? Was there anything particularly strange or shocking, especially relating to the monsters, that you found whilst researching?
Thank you, Nils, I’m so happy to hear you say that, because that’s exactly what I aimed to do. I wanted to make this world feel more historically authentic than my previous world, but also more fantastical.
A lot of the detail in this book comes from my experience as a Viking reenactor, so the weapons, clothing, armour, combat styles and tactics were all reasonably familiar to me, though since deciding to have a go at this new world I have put in many, many hours of research into those fields in an effort to add some layers of authenticity. I also spent a lot of time reading Scandinavian folklore and mythology. I tried to find details that moved away from Odin, Thor and Loki, although they’re awesome and there are some very definite tips-of-the-hat to those guys in The Shadow of the Gods, but there are some gems hidden away in Scandinavian folktales, and some extremely creepy, lesser-known monsters, like the Spertus:
I loved Spertus, even more so because it could talk! And Vesli…
Were there any books you found useful or enjoyable whilst researching that you would recommend to readers?
For an all-round introduction to the history of the Viking era I’d recommend The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price. This is a brilliantly thorough overview of the Viking era.
Vaesen by the artist Johan Egerkrans. I LOVE this book. It’s an illustrated glossary of Scandinavian folk-creatures. He has put together a companion book on the Norse Gods, which is also excellent, but Vaesen was a gold-mine to me and has informed my Bloodsworn Saga in a big way.
I’ll be sure to take a look at Vaesen then!
And for all-things military, I’d recommend Vikings at War by Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike. A better overview of how the Vikings fought you will not find.
Okay, let’s talk about characters because WOW John, Orka is phenomenal! She’s easily become one of my all time favourite female protagonists. So, what inspired her character?
I’m so pleased you like Orka, Nils. She’s really the heart of the book, the first character that I started with, and a lot of the story grew around her.
Orka started off as a discussion with my agent, Julie Crisp. I was telling Julie about my initial ideas for the Bloodsworn Saga, involving dead gods and tainted bloodlines. But Orka was there before all of that, though she wasn’t called Orka at that point. I like to take traditional tropes and give them a re-work, and in the past I’ve played with the chosen one and the prophecy tropes, trying to be respectful to them, but also trying to give them a contemporary twist. So, I was telling Julie that I’ve always loved the trope of the grizzled, retired war veteran/someone with a violent past who has tried to leave it behind them – William Munney from Unforgiven, Wolverine in Logan, Shane, Benjamin Martin from the Patriot, those kinds of characters. David Gemmell wrote many characters like that. Julie and I were chatting about a way to give that trope a new angle, and the idea to change the gender came up. And that was that, Orka was born. Violent, guarded, suffering with PTSD, and fiercely devoted to her family, her husband and son.
I can’t wait for everyone to meet Orka! I mentioned in my review that I can see Orka rivalling The Bloody-Nine from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law – so I have to ask, how do you think that showdown would play out? Who would win? My money’s on Orka!
Ha, I am a BIG fan of Logen Nine-Fingers, what a character. But I’m also pretty fond of Orka, and she can go pretty hard core, especially if someone she loves is on the line.
Logen has his secret weapon in his schizophrenic berserker side-kick, the Bloody-Nine, but Orka has her own secret-weapon, too. Whether it would be just enough to give her that edge and deal with Mr Nine-Fingers, I don’t know.
Not an easy one to call, but I’m going to show some loyalty to my gal (although Logen might say I should be realistic about this). Orka for the win.
Say one thing for Orka, say she’ll never be defeated by old Nine-Fingers!
Could you tell us a little about your inspiration for Varg and Elvar too? And who were your favourite side characters from the Bloodsworn and the Battle-Grim to write?
Varg and Elvar both started with an aspect or aspects of the world that I wanted to show. I try and ‘show not tell,’ and using characters to show core elements of what it is like to live in this new world is a writing device that seemed like a good fit.
With Varg’s storyline, I wanted to show how slavery and thralldom is a deep and unpleasant part of this world, and also he felt like the perfect character to develop the themes of friendship and found-family. He starts off as a loner, a slave-on-the-run, extremely mistrusting of others and fixated on finding the truth behind his sister’s death.
With Elvar, I wanted to show how the mercenary bands within this world work, how they hunt both the tainted bloodlines of the dead gods, and also the vaesen (monsters), all for a price. Elvar’s character is all about the glory, the battle-fame, about your name living on in tales and stories long after your dead, which is a theme you’ll find running through many warrior-cultures, from Achilles to Beowulf. As the story progresses, you’ll see her re-thinking that position.
My favourite side characters? Definitely Svik, a member of the Bloodsworn. He was a lot of fun to write, especially his deep love of cheese. Also, Sighvat, a member of the Battle-Grim.
Haha! Oh god, the cheese made me laugh so much.
Since your first series how do you feel you have evolved as an author? Do you still face any particular challenges, such as a difficult chapter or character arc?
Oh crikey, that is so hard to say. As a writer you always hope that you are getting better, honing your craft, learning along the way. Tightening and refining your prose. And so much of writing for me is about gut-instinct, that’s where the story-telling happens. These days I try and listen to those gut-instinct moments more, rather than question them, when it feels right for a character to die, or survive, or betray, or to prove trust-worthy. But as to whether I am evolving or degenerating as a writer, that is up to the reader to answer. Fingers crossed. I would say that coming out of the first draft of The Shadow of the Gods it was the least worried I’ve been in finishing a book, (because you always have that ‘is it any good?’ moment), but I don’t know if that actually means anything or not.
There are definitely still challenges. My writing style is a mixture of architect and gardener, with some planning around plot events that help me to steer the paths of my characters, but there are also big blanks that I just work out as I go. For example, I’ve added a new POV into book 2 of the Bloodsworn (actually, I’ve added two), and this particular POV was there because I had imagined a certain scene at the end of the book and I needed someone to tell that story. Hence, the new character. It was a challenge to make their arc work through the whole book, when you only know the end, so they gave me a lot of hmm-moments. But, it’s done now (I finished Book 2 on 2nd April) and this particular character feels like one of the stronger POV’s in the book, now. Again, fingers crossed.
Two more POVs, yes please! I look forward to meeting them, John.
Your battle scenes are always so vivid and thrilling to read. Do you feel your process in writing them has remained the same? Out of all your series which battle scene(s) have you most enjoyed writing?
I’m glad you feel that way about my battle-scenes, Nils. I don’t think the way I write combat has changed too much. I hope being a Viking reenactor has added some deeper layers of authenticity and detail, but at its heart I think I approach combat the same way I always have done. It may sound strange now, but watching the film Braveheart was a major inspiration on the way I approach writing combat. When that film came out it stood out against all that had come before. It was the first time I’d seen medieval combat portrayed in a gritty, realistic way. Up until then most films of that genre tended to romanticize combat and glorify it. Braveheart was the Saving Private Ryan of its day, giving that sense of being in the heart of the chaos, as if the characters were wearing go-pro’s, and it captured a real sense of the fear and mayhem and horror of war. That was my template for writing combat, and if we are talking about books, then I’d say Bernard Cornwell has also been an inspiration on how to write combat. Not just the mechanics, but putting heart into it, as well.
Which battle scenes have I most enjoyed writing? Well, there’s a certain scene in Ruin that springs to mind, involving a duel, a running mount and a very angry wolven.
That scene still gives me absolute chills.
Also, a scene in The Shadow of the Gods, where Orka walks into a pub with a seax in her fist and some bad intentions in her head (or should I say ‘thought-cage’). And the final battle in A Time of Courage, which took up about 200 pages. That was an immense challenge to work out.
I’d say the whole of A Time of Courage is one big final battle, it really was a satisfying conclusion.
Ok, one of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive is which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why? And I’d also like to add which THREE characters from any of your series would you choose to stand beside you in a shield wall?
Which fantastical creature would I ride into battle? A dragon, of course.
Which three of my characters would I choose to stand beside me in the shield wall? Orka, Maquin and Storm. Honorable mention – Balur One-Eye.
Those are some great choices, John. Out of those I’d choose Storm every time.
Can you tell us a little something about book two? What will our characters be doing next? Will there be more cheese?!
Okay, what can I tell you without spoilers…not very much. Um, the individual quests and threads of the main POV’s become more intertwined, as they all get dragged into a greater conflict, despite how little most of the main characters care about that.
Also, my wolf and raven obsession rears its head again. And there is definitely more cheese. Prepare yourself for another of Svik’s tales.
Look forward to it.
And if I can cheekily ask you… are you able to share a title with us yet?
The working title for Bloodsworn 2 is Dead Gods Rising, but I don’t think that will be the final title – that’s a decision made by my publishers, and whilst I can submit my title and thoughts, the final decision is with them. My working title for book 1 was Dragon Unchained, but that was changed to The Shadow of the Gods by my publishers. It’s one of those things that is decided by committee.
And lastly how does it feel to be called a slayer of characters, a monster and a madman?! (For those of you who don’t know, I may have called John a few names in my review and if you’ve read his books you’ll know why!)
In all honesty, Nils, this makes me happy.
Haha, I’m glad!
Thank you so much, John!
Thank you, Nils, for the invite. It’s great to catch up and be back at the Fantasy Hive.