The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne – Book Review

Reading Norse sagas, in translation, isn’t nearly as engaging an affair as you might hope it would be. Old texts demand not only a deep fount of knowledge and focus rarely found in the twenty-first century, but also context that virtually no non-specialized reader can appreciate fully. They don’t necessarily have all that our minds jump to whenever the word “saga” pops up, all those elements we’ve romanticized thanks, in large part, to fantasy. That’s not to say I’d discourage you from reading the classics—they carry that label for a reason. But if you want something to respond to the label as it might figure in your mind, John Gwynne’s 2021 novel has everything you could possibly hope for.

Shadow of the Gods is indeed a blood-soaked saga, to borrow the words of one of the novel’s protagonists; or its opening act, at the very least. The same protagonist as much as tells us what to expect: “This is a world of blood. Of tooth and claw and sharp iron. Of short lives and painful deaths.” But so much more, also: Snatched children, men and women carrying the blood of long-dead gods, sorcery, myth and treasure aplenty—I want to dissect this novel; or better yet, have the author give a masterclass on worldbuilding drawing from it.

With John Gwynne, there’s no question of “style over substance” or the inverse—there’s plenty of both to discover in each and every paragraph. The use of simile, the vividness of so many details, never overwhelm but make for a world that doesn’t so much invite you in as enfold you completely. Gwynne does not shy away from viscera, from the grittiness of so brutal a world—the stench of it all comes off the page.

And what of characters? The novel is told from three distinct viewpoints: Orka, an experienced warrior, now a mother, forced to turn back to her bloody calling after tragedy strikes in the most horrific of ways; Varg, a former slave and fighter whose flight pushes him in with a mercenary band of legendary repute; and Elvar, a Very Angry Young Woman Hungry For Glory. She also likes stabbing people, which I always appreciate in a Viking-adjacent lad or lass. I struggle picking any one character I adored more than the oth—nope, I’m sorry but it’s Orka. She’s angry and lethal and wise in the snarkiest ways possible:

“You said he was going to be free,” Lif breathed.
“Aye, free of this life,” Orka grated.
“Why did you kill him, when he answered everything?” Mord pressed.
“Because a cleaved head no longer plots,” Orka growled.

Far as I’m concerned, this is good, actionable advice and everyone should follow it. (Do not actually cleave heads, folks!)

I cannot recommend The Shadow of the Gods enough, dear Reader. I could stand around and quote paragraphs at you all day long, but that won’t change the simple fact that you should be reading this novel – it’s simply that good, perhaps some of the finest heroic/epic fantasy I’ve read.

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