When gods go to war, it is no small thing.
The Shadows of Gods by John Gwynne is a Scandanavian-inspired grim and dark book that nevertheless avoids the common pitfalls that come with the label of grimdark fantasy. It is not grim for grim’s sake, as in, it is not without hope and light moments. It just presents a challenging world to survive and thrive in. Characters don’t die for the cliche shock of it; it is violent and heartbreaking rather than causing eyes to roll when they do.
The tone and the writing style remind me a lot of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher books. There are no wasted words. The world isn’t fair; it’s full of dangers like the monsters known as the vaesen, the people with the blood of the fallen god’s in them known as tainted, and in general, hard-ass warriors that make survival rates relatively low. However, it is not without light. It has hope for the future, strong bonds between friends and family, laughter among comrades, and general feel-good moments.
The world is Vigrið, the Battle-plain. Queen Helka is attempting to unite it under her rule as jarls swear fealty to her. The monsters known as vaesen are no longer staying hidden but becoming more likely to steal and murder. Powerful artifacts, the bones of fallen gods, are being plundered in an arms race that may lead to war. Orka is forced into action when all she wanted was to be with her family, alone and isolated from this dangerous world. She is constantly fighting for control of her emotions, particularly rage, and is battle-trained although her past is a mystery. Varg quite the opposite, as a thrall he is forced to fight with only his fists, and though he finds himself with the Bloodsworn, a legendary band of mercenaries for hire, for his own personal oath he is learning what it means to have fellowship and freedom again. Elvar is the youth of the three, looking for glory, fame, and victory but is skeptical of the old stories of gods and monsters.
In the first book of The Bloodsworn Trilogy, the three point-of-view characters and their stories balance each other well. Without Elvar’s journey for glory, Varg and Orka’s journey for revenge, though vastly different, would feel too similar. Without Orka’s life with her family and search for her missing son, Elvar’s journey with the Battle-Grim would be too similar to Varg’s journey with the Bloodsworn. Together, they balance out the novel quite well, exploring different locations, cultures, and perspectives of the author’s world.
The author teases these crossing of the paths of the point-of-view characters. There are three circles for Orka, Varg, and Elvar that form a Venn diagram of events, characters, and consequences that overlap one another. I will not spoil whether they ever meet, but the events that fall into the center of that Venn diagram where all three circles meet are monumental that will have enormous ripples for the rest of the series in the future. The stories of our three point-of-view characters seem mostly isolated or small in scale to the world of the Battle-plain until they are very much not. When they become part of the larger narrative, it is thrilling. The kind of thrilling where it’s too late for you to be still reading, but you cannot stop until you reach the end.
Protagonists are only as good as their secondary characters. Orka’s husband and son soften her rough exterior. The Battle-Grim and Grend keep Elvar’s youthful enthusiasm for putting herself in danger in check. The Bloodsworn, for which the series is named, is featured in Varg’s chapters and is by far the most lovable. Svik, with his perfectly groomed beard and hair who always seems to have cheese on him, Einar Half-Troll, whose names speak for himself, Rokia, Varg’s hard-as-nails weapons and shield trainer, and Glornir, the Bloodsworn’s chief of many names from Shield-Breaker to Gold-Giver are just some that make up the famed band of mercenary warriors. They’re a tight-knit group of witty, tough, and loyal warriors that kept me wanting to know more and more about them and the world.
Speaking of the world: Vigrið, the Battle-plain, seems simple at first. The gods ruled over it, fought over it, and died, leaving humans to dominate the land and fight off the monsters that resulted in the death of their gods. Some humans have become monsters themselves through slavery, enthralling the Tainted, humans who have the gods’ blood within them. The author has that gift for well-written world-building that’s like a pitcher filling your cup at a slow pour that tilts just as slowly that by the time you reach the end, you’re banging your cup, thirsty for that second pitcher even more. At first, the use of Icelandic seemed unnecessary, like too many apostrophes in fantasy-ass fantasy names. Still, they’re never used without context surrounding it, and it becomes essential to immerse yourself in the story. Unfamiliar with the author’s work, I learned John Gwynne has a passion for history, mythology, and Viking reenactments that his sons share. I love when an author brings their passions to their work and those passions shine in The Shadow of the Gods. It reads as if it was inspired from all aspects of the cultures of the Battle-plain. Nothing seems shallowly thrown in, and his passion for reenactment explains why the weaponry, clothing, and architecture are lovingly detailed.
The Shadow of the Gods does what has drawn me to certain fantasy recently. It tells you “this is just how the world is” for a majority of the book, then throws the biggest wrench in the works it could find. A status quo, more complex than simply the villain being taken down or the cliches of the hero’s journey, is changed forever, which makes the characters question why they ever accepted the old way of living. In the Battle-plain, the gods are gone, dead in a war they fought against each other and in their wake, the vaesen came to exist. Those humans who have the gods in their blood are feared, hunted, and sold into thralldom because, according to many, they fought alongside the gods and nearly destroyed the world. The final act of this novel begins pulling at these threads that have been hammered home as something that should just be accepted as how it is and then unravels those notions in one monumental pull that will completely change the world’s landscape going forward.
I came into the novel expecting violence, grim decisions having to be made, and death. I received characters and a world that I was drawn into, wanting to know more about the Battle-plain and the inhabitants from the warbands to the vaesen to the gods and the tainted. The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne has everything I love to explore in a fantasy novel using Scandinavian folklore and mythology. It sounds basic, but it also does what every story should: it makes me desperate to find out what happens next. Not only that, but in the meantime, it has me interested in the series Gwynne has written before.
Joshua was provided an advance copy of the book by Orbit books.
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