THE HUNGER OF THE GODS by John Gwynne (BOOK REVIEW)
This review will contain spoilers for The Shadow of the Gods.
“To kill a god, we need a god.”
The Bloodsworn saga continues in The Hunger of the Gods, John Gwynne’s superbly epic follow up to The Shadow of the Gods. At the end of the first book I was left in a state of awe, conjuring up many ways in which Orka, Elva and Varg’s stories would continue. I knew the next instalment in the saga would be one of vengeance, of found families, of saving those you love, and I knew Gwynne would inject plenty of his signature cinematic battle-scenes, but never once did I imagine he could leave me gasping and shaking even after I closed the very last page.
The Hunger of the Gods is simply breathtaking, a ruthlessly brutal Norse mythological tale from a truly masterful storyteller. The dead gods have risen and in their wake vengeance is fought with tooth and claw, and the tremors of war are felt throughout the lands of Vigrið.
Lik-Rifa the great and terrible dragon god is free, and after an eternity of being held prisoner her wrath knows no bounds. Our characters may all be living through a legendary saga quite like no other, but glory, fame and to be remembered in song is no longer as desirable as it once seemed. As Orka single handedly carves a violent path to find her son, Breca, Glornir, chief of the Bloodsworn, also seeks to find his Vol by any means necessary, and as the Bloodsworn head south, Varg also discovers vengeance burns within his blood too. Elvar, feeling the confines of her blood oath to Uspa, is on a path that unfortunately leads her and the Battle-Grim directly to Lik-Rifa and the Dragonborn. Though she must first gather a formidable army, she must unite forces, and knowing that even that may not be enough, she looks to dark magic.
It will be no surprise to anyone who remains my favourite character. Orka Skullsplitter, once legendary chief of the Bloodsworn, a fierce warrior, a one woman army, a mother desperately seeking her son. Orka’s plan of action is to kill any who stand in her way to finding Breca and avenging Thorkel, although she may save one, you know… for information. However strong Orka appears, throughout this book we see that she is in a world of pain, stricken by grief, guilt, and heartbreak. Moments of thinking of Breca, remembering his touch, his kindness to creatures, his gentle soul, Orka’s love permeated and in turn my heart longed for her reunion. This is what makes Gwynne’s characters so compelling, they are always simultaneously fierce and vulnerable, they fight for love. I was glad to see that now Orka had been reunited with her Bloodsworn, and was in the company of Lif, Vesli and Spert—two fantastic Vaesen creatures—she needn’t continue completely alone.
“Here everything seemed to slow, the noise of the world, the anger and terror that raged through her, all stilled for a moment, frozen and languid in this mountain’s heart- water. Her chest began to burn, aching for a breath, pressure building in her head, and still she waited, grateful for this respite from the world above.”
Once again, Gwynne completely captured me with his battle scenes. Although we get his familiar shield walls and warriors battling with spears, swords and seax’s, this time around there is an animalistic quality to the fighting. With the Bloodsworn and in particular Orka now revealed as Tainted, their powers truly begin to surface. The feral wolf blood of Ulfrir runs through Orka and helps her to fight with forecity. She may have these powers honed to a degree, but the wolf rage is always bubbling inside her, always seeking to be released. In all honesty this made her action sequences not only extremely thrilling but also highly unpredictable, you never quite knew when or how she would strike next!
Whereas our more inexperienced Varg, having only just discovered he is Tainted, has to learn to control his inner wolf, and more importantly hide the signs lest he end up with a thrall collar around his neck. Having now settled into life with the Bloodsworn, it was warming to see Varg finally feel he belonged, that these infamous warriors are his family. His sister still may be in the forefront of his mind, but he no longer bares the burden alone. Varg’s narrative leads him through dark paths, but scenes where Svik and Røkia train him, or Einar and Røkia play with the orphaned children whilst Varg amusingly watches, or where Svik and Røkia banter with him, were moments of lightheartedness that I felt effectively cut through the overall bleakness. In fact in this instalment the humour really was fantastic and more often than not had me in fits of laughter. Some of my favourite scenes included Vesli collecting and eating teeth whilst Varg looked on with disgust, Varg’s bouts of seasickness and also when my beloved Svik told all of the Bloodsworn and the children a story about a trapped troll. It is these inclusions which make the characters feel like the perfect found family, even when they are ruthless killers.
“Together we are more. But I am the chief, the jarl, the pack-leader, and you the wolf are bound to me, like an oathsworn warrior. Oathsworn obey. He sucked in a deep breath, held it, felt its effect on the wolf in his veins.”
As much as Orka and Varg develop throughout The Hunger of the Gods, it is Elvar who grows the most. Her narrative in The Shadow of the Gods showed us a young woman running from her father, desperate to prove her worth, to survive. Yet in the aftermath of Lik-Rifa’s resurrection and her promise and blood-oath to Uspa, a Seiðr witch, Elvar must now show she can be a leader. Gwynne really pushes her character throughout, increasing her responsibilities and her role in the overall plot. Much relies on Elvar’s success, and much will be destroyed should she fail.
Gwynne also includes two new perspectives in this sequel, that of Guðvarr and Biórr, who gave us much needed knowledge of what the villains were up to. Yet in true fashion to Gwynne’s previous books, these characters have reasons, more to the point justifiable reasons for the choices they have made and the sides they are on. Biorr understandably bears anger for himself and his fellow Tainted. Those who are gifted with the power of the gods, those who should be respected but instead are collared, put into slavery and abused. Is it any wonder he should seek revenge? And Guðvarr is a character who learns the truth of ‘be careful what you wish for’. He begins wanting nothing more than battle fame, to earn his aunt’s respect, in a cruel unforgiving world she is the only woman to ever have shown him kindness. Yet he ends up in the clutches of Skalk, a character who you never want to cross paths with. Guðvarr’s inner monologues were immensely hilarious to read, his boisterous claims coupled with his inner fears were well contrasted and made us understand his character all the more.
As an aside, I’d like to thank John Gwynne for including both a glossary of Norse terms and a “what has gone before” section. These were both such useful additions and I have the highest of praise for any author who makes things easier for their readers!
The sheer joy and thrill I get from reading Gwynne’s books never ceases to amaze me; his characters may always be well-crafted, his worldbuilding exceptionally detailed and his stories captivating, but this is an author who still manages to surprise me, even after all these years. Reading a book by John Gwynne always feels like reading a modern classic. Sure, they are dark, violent, heartbreaking and always pulse-racing, yet there is also a nostalgic element to his prose, a sense of “old school fantasy” and I always manage to find comfort in them. In my review for The Shadow of the Gods I said it ‘reminded me of all that I love in the fantasy genre’, and now that I’ve finished The Hunger of the Gods this still holds true.
“Life is a knife’s edge, and all can
change with the thrust of a blade.”