The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne (The Bloodsworn Saga #2) – Book Review

Published by: Orbit
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Pages: 656
Format: ebook
Received free arc copy from NetGalley in return for an honest review

All sequels should accomplish what John Gwynne’s Hunger of the Gods has. That’s to say, Gwynne’s latest expands the world and characters in such a way as to make The Shadow of the Gods appear a tiny piece of a mosaic you’re finally seeing from the right distance. It hasn’t all resolved yet—far from it—but every element is even clearer, every character fleshed out still further, the world immeasurably deeper. And, lest you forget, all these elements were breath-taking already in The Shadow.

The Hunger of the Gods enters your good graces from the first, even as its length, a good 20% longer than its predecessor, intimidates. Gwynne has added a “The Story So Far” section, helpfully providing a reminder to all us readers whose memory of certain elements of the prior novel might have been blurred by time. The text itself would’ve done a wonderful job recalling all that’s past, but having those several pages’ worth of recap is something all authors of series should do, for utility’s sake.  

Following the battle at Oskutred, gods once again walk the mortal plains, three hundred years after what should’ve been their end. In the middle of this is Elvar of the Battle-Grim, the youngest of her mercenary company, a character whose arc through the previous novel is a mere shadow of all that awaits her here. A deep-thinker, she is desperate to act against the recently freed Lik-Rifa in order to honour a magical blood-oath sworn to save the Seidr-witch Uspa’s child. Left alone in the mythical land of Osktured, the Battle-Grim find more than enough tools equal to the task, making use of their enemy’s resources. I’m in awe of the journey Elvar takes throughout these pages, clenching victory after victory from the jaws of despair with ingenuity and brute strength both. She is bloodthirsty but not without compassion and even in her hurt, she is cruel only by necessity. Her final chapters here had me shaking with gleeful anticipation and excitement as Elvar dispelled old ghosts in the most violent way possible. Yum!

The Bloodsworn, meanwhile, are on a mission to get back one of their own, the Seidr-witch Vol. “Glornir’s woman,” as several antagonists describe her, Vol is plenty more than just that. She’ll show as much, given the opportunity. The PoV character here is once more Varg No-Sense, the freed slave who embodies the sense of fraternity that makes the Bloodsworn so special. It’s often a bittersweet journey—sweet for the depth of friendship Varg discovers in his fellow Bloodsworn, time and again, bitter for the loss that comes with every battle. The warrior’s life is no bloodless thing. And Varg’s humanity makes it no easier; there’s a terrible vulnerability in the way he perceives the world, a conflict between the human in him and the inhumanity of all that surrounds him, seen in passages like the following:

Varg felt a lurch of nausea in his belly, followed quickly by a sense of guilt. That he was free, where they were slaves. He had been one of them, not so long ago. A spark of horror and futile anger in his gut, that he lived in a world where people were treated like this.

I do not know if a better world is in the cards; but if it is, I suspect Varg will have a part to play in making it so.

Orka continues her quest to reclaim her son from the child-stealers, joined by a few Bloodsworn following Shadows’ brutal final scene. To see her fall back to a former role, that of leader, is a source of joy; camaraderie here, too, is the name of the game. I grew to love and know and fear for each of her new companions; and seeing all of them take an almost parental pride in returning character Lif as he learned the warrior’s craft is nothing if not cute. Orka’s opening chapters here are bitter, seeing her process the pain of thinking herself closer to her goal than ever, only to find she has deceived herself:

Grief had flowed from her like blood from a sword thrust. But today the wound was seared and stitched closed again, her heart cold and hard.

The hunt is on, as this wolf-mother is ready to pay any price to save her cub from the dragon cultists. And what a journey it is…

Two more perspectives join the fray—one of traitor Biórr, the other of opportunistic coward Gudvarr, both of them offering fresh views of the places of power in these worlds. Gudvarr falls in the thrall of Skalk the Galdurman, a filthy little wizard who really needs an axe stuck into his skull—almost as much as Gudvarr does, in fact. I enjoyed reading Gudvarr’s sections, even as I felt deep loathing for the character. Gwynne does a brilliant job of capturing the inner workings of a man whose foremost instinct is survival at all costs; it’s not a pretty place to inhabit but it sure is interesting.

Biorr’s point of view is less about survival than it is about the cost paid by someone living a double life. It is an arc successful not only in this but also in following the recently freed dragon god’s agenda to crumble the present world order and place herself and her followers on top. Biorr’s personal journey teaches him all the wrong lessons—as becomes evident time and again. I shan’t say more for fear of spoilers, but…I almost feel sorry for Biorr. Almost.

Gwynne is one of the top-tier authors you want to read action scenes from; few authors can make a fight so scrumptious as he, so tactile even in its build-up. Take this:

All around [Elvar] the Battle-Grim were crying out, blades hissing into fists, shields rising. Thuds and bellows, a swarm of creatures surging out of the impenetrable black. They were the things of nightmare, small, large, some slithering on segmented bodies, others scrambling on long-jointed legs, some dripping with slime, others clawed, fanged, pincers clacking, mandibled jaws snapping, some with many eyes, some with none, and they fell upon the Battle-Grim with hissing fury.

It’s gut-wrenching prose whose stink you can breathe in, whose viscera you can almost taste—just as epic fantasy should be written.

The cards are all set, the final hand has been dealt. The final chapter in The Bloodsworn’s saga-tale is ready to be told. I, for one, am desperate to see it finished.

I leave you with these words of wisdom:

“And remember,” Orka continued, “a shield is a weapon as well as a defensive tool. The rim can crush a windpipe or smash teeth out.”

Truer words…

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