Book review: The Shadow of the Gods (The Bloodsworn Saga #1) by John Gwynne

Book review: The Shadow of the Gods (The Bloodsworn Saga #1) by John Gwynne

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ARC provided by the publisher—Orbit—in exchange for an honest review.

Cover art illustrated by: Marcus Whinney

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga (Book #1 of 3)

Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy

Pages: 496 pages (Hardcover edition)

Published: 6th May 2021 by Orbit (UK) and 4th May 2021 by Orbit (US)

Reading The Shadow of the Gods is equivalent to witnessing a new brilliant legendary Norse-inspired epic fantasy series in the making.

“Sometimes there are no choices. We are swept along in a current not of our own choosing… I will be the current. I will be the course.”

By this point, does it still come as a shock that I ended up loving this? I’ve read all of Gwynne’s books—twice for The Faithful and the Fallen—and I have absolutely loved them all; every book by Gwynne is on my favorites shelf, and this one is no exception. I have done the beyond-epic cover reveal—illustrated by Marcus Whinney—to The Shadow of the Gods, and this novel was easily my number one most anticipated book of the year. Honestly, I did think of deleting my social media for a while due to being triggered seeing so many people receiving The Shadow of the Gods much earlier than I did. Yes, it was that painful to me! My expectations and anticipations for The Shadow of the Gods were as high as Yggdrassil, and Gwynne exceeded them. Again. I have spread gospels about Gwynne’s books for four years now, and as always, there’s no sign of this stopping ever. This book is evidently as epic as the cover art. The Shadow of the Gods is the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga series by John Gwynne. It is a new series in a completely new world that differs from The Banished Lands. So yes, you’re safe to start here if you haven’t read any of Gwynne’s books before; you will be missing one of the greatest epic fantasy series, though.

Picture: The Shadow of the Gods by Marcus Whinney

After the gods warred and drove themselves to extinction, the cataclysm of their fall shattered the land of Vigrið. The Shadow of the Gods revolves around three different main characters with their own respective quest in the new age of storm and murder: Orka, Varg, and Elvar. Their storylines of blood, death, battle-fame, and vengeance are seemingly separate for almost the entirety of the book, but rest assured, their paths eventually converged, and my god, it was such an electrifying convergence. Ever since I finished reading The Faithful and the Fallen in early 2017, I’ve mentioned several times that it would be amazing if Gwynne one day decides to write a Norse-inspired epic fantasy series; well, here we are. This is one of Gwynne’s bloodiest books so far; that’s saying a lot. Seriously, if you’ve read Gwynne’s previous books in The Banished Lands Saga, you should know how bloody this book is when I said that. But with that in mind, then you’ll also know that the key elements that made Gwynne’s books so damn lovable are all evident in this phenomenal start to a series. Yes, family, camaraderie, the pursuit of fame, and loyalty in superbly-written characters are still vital in Gwynne’s storytelling.

“It is a hard world, and we will not always be here to protect him from it. We are not just his parents, we are his teachers, too.”

Gwynne has always been excellent at characterizations; this is one of his most tremendous assets as a storyteller, and he has consistently maintained this since his debut. And even then, I’m still pleasantly surprised by the creation of the character Orka. I don’t want to say too much regarding this character; I didn’t know anything about her except that readers loved her, and I have to echo the same sentiment on this. I will say this instead, in one book, Gwynne has certified Orka as one of the best characters to ever exist in the entire genre. Orka’s story was cover-to-cover compelling, and she’s an extremely well-written character. Although it’s true that she numerously displayed extraordinary skill and talent in battles, what I loved most about her isn’t exclusive to that; it’s the way she prioritized her family over everything else. Her character’s development and interaction with Thorkell, Breca, Lif, and Mord gave her the necessary characterizations that made her rampage and destructions towards her enemies so rewarding.

“You and Breca are my home. Wherever we are together, that is home to me.”

Then there’s also the next main character: Varg. Varg seeks vengeance for his sister’s death, and he wants to know what caused her death. To achieve this objective, Varg has his fate intertwined with The Bloodsworn. Immediately from his first two chapters where he battled Einar the Half-Troll, my attention and investment in his story were sparked already. Considering that camaraderie in a hard world and found family are some of the main themes in The Shadow of the Gods, I do believe that Gwynne has portrayed them effectively through Varg’s chapters. It was immensely heartwarming seeing Varg, who has been alone all his life, gradually develop friendships with the members of the Bloodsworn. Remember, the series is named The Bloodsworn Saga, so obviously, The Bloodsworn is an important group of people within the book/series. Also, Varg’s chapters were filled with humor due to the character Svik. I can’t even begin to say how much I enjoyed reading Svik’s cheese and porridge story; I can’t wait for you all to read it. There’s also this gem that may be linked to The Lord of the Rings:

“Get moving, Varg No-sense… Or are you waiting for an eagle to swoop down and carry you the rest of the way?”

Admittedly, Elvar’s chapters took me half of the novel to get invested; I was worried that Elvar would be the first time I ever felt bored with Gwynne’s main POV character. Fortunately, I was proven wrong in the second half of Elvar’s story. The thing with Elvar is that her character’s motivation and internal conflicts haven’t been ignited yet until we reached the halfway point. In the first half of the novel, her chapters consist of her adventures with her Battle-Grim companions. Once that candle of characterizations was lit, I became so much more immersed in her character and plotline. I’m not kidding; her story exploded magnificently in the second half of the novel. There’s a very admirable quality in Elvar’s character that I enjoyed; she won’t submit to a life of servitude, and instead, she chooses freedom and battle-fame. Similar to Varg’s story, the decision and importance of choosing your own family is a key driving force of her character.

“Men die, Women die, all creatures of flesh and blood die, but battle-fame survives. To become a song, a saga-tale told from generation to generation. That way we will live forever. That is what I want, what all of us want.”

With three POV-characters, The Shadow of the Gods means that this is Gwynne’s lowest POV-characters count so far in his career; for Gwynne’s first book of a series, Malice utilizes seven (six main + one side) POV-characters, and A Time of Dread has four POV characters. The decision to narrow it down to three POV characters worked in favor of the narrative because Vigrið is a relatively smaller place compared to The Banished Lands, at least for now. It’s been a year since I’ve read A Time of Courage, the last book in Of Blood and Bone trilogy by John Gwynne, and I am once again reminded just how “safe” so many other epic fantasy books are. No one is ever safe in his books, Gwynne excels so much at characterizations, and this isn’t only applicable to his protagonists but also antagonists. If you’re a new reader to his works, Gwynne is a merciless author; you will always fear for the protagonists, and you will always want retribution towards the enemies. It is one of the best parts about reading his books, and I, for one, am utterly grateful for this. Not many fantasy authors can—or have the bravery to—achieve this fearless feat.

“Fear can be ice or fire in the veins, freezing the body or setting a blaze within it.”

The more I read fantasy books, the more I wish that more authors are as gifted as Gwynne at writing battle scenes. Seriously, he’s a genius at this. For me, his exceptional battle-scenes are also what puts Gwynne above so many other fantasy authors. Let’s take Orka, for example, she is a new challenger to The Bloody-Nine from The First Law by Joe Abercrombie; her calculated rampaging madness and unflinching brutality were insane, intense, and incredible. The vivid chaos of being in the Shield-Wall and how deadly it can inflict is back again here. Then there are also more monsters—trolls, vaesen, näcken—and magics involved now. The Shadow of the Gods is imbued with jaw-dropping action sequences; seax stabbings, axe splitting skulls, the battle between humans, monsters, and The Tainted—people with cursed blood—all felt splendidly immersive and real. Brandon Sanderson is often known for his climactic final chapters that earned the title of Sanderlanche (Sanderson’s Avalanche). That term is well-deserved, and it’s unbelievable that Gwynne, who has delivered epic tempestuous climactic action sequences constantly, still doesn’t have a term for his achievements. From now on, I’m going to call Gwynne’s final chapters in his books the Gwynnado (Gwynne’s Tornado). The last 15% in The Shadow of the Gods was a maelstrom of breathtaking savagery. The crimson convergence of carnage, violence, and emotions was totally enthralling, and it will leave you begging for more.

“Fear is no bad thing,” Orka said. “How can you be brave if you do not feel fear?”
“I don’t understand,” Breca said, frowning.”
“Courage is being scared of a task and doing it anyway.”

Lastly, before I end this review, I want to mention that The Shadow of the Gods contained Gwynne’s most detailed world-building yet. As mentioned several times already, this is a heavily Norse-inspired fantasy series inspired by Ragnarok and Beowulf. The details in the character’s appearances, clothing, weaponry exhibited Gwynne’s passion for this world and Viking mythologies. The history of the Battle-Plain—shattered realms caused by the war of the gods that destroyed the world a long time ago—plus the intricacy of the environment and landscape truly transformed Vigrið into a location that felt so real. Snaka (Snake, the father of gods), his sons—Ulfrir (Wolf), Berser (Bear), Rotta (Rat), Orna (Eagle) Lik-Rifa (Dragon)—and Oskutred were definitely Ragnarok-inspired world-building. And I loved how Gwynne connects these mythical beings into the current events of the story with the inclusion of the Tainted. As I said, the Tainted are people with cursed blood that mankind hates and hunts. They’re descended from the gods I mentioned earlier, and depending on the cursed blood, each Tainted is capable of channeling their blood to enhance their own respective abilities and power. I personally wouldn’t call The Shadow of the Gods as The Last Kingdom or Vikings inspired; these are massive oversimplification and generalization that doesn’t give this book the recognition it deserved. The Norse-inspired God of War video game is a much more epic and apt comparison.

Picture: Ragnarök by Johan Egerkrans

Between Malice, A Time of Dread, and The Shadow of the Gods, Gwynne just crafted his most well-polished start to his series yet. As a gratifying bonus, Gwynne’s reputation earned him my faith that the rest of the series will get better and better. Both Wrath and A Time of Courage are included in my “Masterpieces” shelf, and I’m sure the concluding volume to The Bloodsworn Saga will follow the notion. The Shadow of the Gods marked the beginning of a new bloodsoaked and legendary superlative Norse-inspired epic fantasy that future readers will praise, remember, and memorialized. The Bloodsworn and Battle-Grim are carving a bloody path across Vigrið, and I will be proud to say that I was there during the birth of this saga-tale. Welcome to the Battle-Plain. I await your enlistment into the Bloodsworn.

“Remember, we are Bloodsworn, bound to one another. Stand or fall, we are sworn to each other. That is our strength.”

Official release date: 6th May 2021 (UK) and 4th May 2021 (US)

You can pre-order the book from: Amazon UK | Amazon US | Book Depository (Free shipping) | Bookshop (Support Local Bookstores!)

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

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