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

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)

The Shadow of the Gods is the new benchmark in Norse mythology-inspired stories. This is the fantasy I’ve been waiting for.

In all honesty, this book had as good a chance as possible of becoming a favourite of mine, for I am without a doubt an ardent reader and supporter of John Gwynne and his books, having read and loved all of his previous works. Both The Faithful and the Fallen and Of Blood and Bone are masterpieces in my estimation and occupy treasured spaces on my shelf and within my heart. Nevertheless, no book is a certain thing as writers are only human beings, but I could not contain my excitement when I read that this latest venture of Mr Gwynne was another epic fantasy story, this time with Norse ink in its veins. I believe that mythologies always appeal to a wide fan base, with Norse and Greek, in particular, being personal favourites. And while I am nowhere near well-read on the subjects, I squeed like any fan worthy of the title at the idea of a favourite author shaping a story from the fertile ground that is the Norse culture. On such a foundation The Shadow of the Gods had much to live up to and I tried to curtail my hopes a little. There was no need though. At the end of this story, I was once again in awe at witnessing a master completely comfortable in executing an epically captivating and exciting tale.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the majestic grandeur that is the cover art by Marcus Whinney.

The Shadow of the Gods is unconnected to anything that the author has written before, and is set in the world of Vigrið, the Battle-Plain. A world of departed deities, bloody feuds and fearsome monsters; a harsh, unforgiving place that will brook nothing less than hard words and harder actions to survive and where only fools do not learn to protect themselves. The tales speak of an ancient war between the gods that came to a ruinous head 300 years ago, culminating in the Guðfalla, the final battle of devastating proportions that turned Vigrid into a graveyard of gods. A shattered land bleeding monsters, vaesan, from the wounds of this conflagration and littered with the sought after, potent remnants of these fallen beings. A place in which the blood of the gods still flows through the veins of Vigrid’s inhabitants. But in this world where the gods and their kin once lived, thrived, and were worshipped, such worship is now forbidden, and those who display any of the gifts that would mark them as possessing even a hint of the deific blood, the Tainted, are despised and mercilessly hunted. For never again will Vigrid be ruled over by the whims of gods.

“This is a world of blood.. of tooth and claw and sharp iron. Of short lives and painful deaths.”

The narrative is told through three different character viewpoints. Orka, a huntress, a mother, a wife, and a fierce warrior who only wishes to spend time with her family in relative peace. Elvar, a mercenary who dreams of carving her name into history and the sagas. And Varg, a once-thrall with a driving hunger for vengeance who has been given a path to it as a member of the mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn. As to how they are part of the plot and fit together, you will have to read to learn more.

She glanced at him, saw fear in his eyes. “It sounds . . . dangerous.”
“This is Vigrið,” she answered. “Living is dangerous.

For fans of the author, character comparisons are inevitable, and the unforgettable ones that we spent our time with within The Banished Lands, John Gwynne’s previous two series, are eternal favourites of mine. That is all due to the phenomenal characterization that the author gifted us with. Such consistently well-crafted characters are a mainstay of the greatest writers and it has been evident in every single book of Gwynne’s. The Shadow of the Gods is no different. Once again they are superbly written and I already feel these new characters fighting tooth and nail to be part of that much-loved family of characters that never leave us. And as has ever been the case with Gwynne’s works (and I pray it never changes) the themes that stand out are love, loyalty, friendship and family, including found family. These themes are at the heart of the story and its characters, driving their decisions and shaping their futures and it’s one of the many reasons I can buy John Gwynne’s books without knowing a single thing about them. The emotions he invests in every character’s storyline never fail to move me. They will always be a joy to read.

“Battle- fame is nothing; it is chaff on the wind. Bonds of love, of kinship, of passion, of friendship: that is what we should all be yearning for.”

But don’t be fooled into thinking that these motifs in The Shadow of the Gods translate into clear cut good and bad, heroes and white knights. This world is a jagged edge and will cut anything and anyone soft to ribbons. Hesitation often means death. As for our main characters in The Shadow of the Gods, Mr Gwynne does not handle any of them with kid gloves, their journeys tumultuous, bloody and nerve-wracking to say the least. All three of the protagonists had me completely riveted to the page by the end. I admit, Elvar’s chapters initially had me longing to return to Varg and Orka. Thankfully this changed as the story progressed and brought with it some essential key moments in her development. Now I can’t wait to read more about her. I still like Varg much more though, unlike Elvar his storyline gripped me right from the start, but I won’t again be wishing Elvar’s chapters to speed along any quicker in the next book. As for Orka… Damn, I wish everyone could see the grin on my face right now.

“You are my second; should you not be giving me advice on how to win?”
“Put your axe in his skull,” Orka said.

Orka is one of the most remarkable characters I have ever encountered on a page, and I would lay down my life for her. Singularly determined, protective, loving and fierce as an inferno, the mother, wife and warrior are every single thing that I could hope for and want in a character. She has instantly fought herself a way onto my favourites list and I do not wish to be the character that challenges her for her spot. Say your goodbyes, would be my only advice. And before I forget, the animal companions, another strength of the author, are as wonderful as ever and I will never tire of finding them in these stories.

I have already spoken much of the world but will add that Mr Gwynne is creating something exceptional here. Norse mythology is deftly woven throughout the narrative, and his love for it and knowledge of it shows through his comprehensive efforts on the page. The various gods, the locations, means of transport, sagas, culture, weapons and armour, tactics and fighting styles, magics and mysteries… Although I have always been fascinated and am mindful of how lacking my knowledge of it is, I have just never gotten to the point of amending this shortcoming. Until now. I dread John Gwynne has awakened a slumbering beast, and it is ravenous! I ordered a few books I definitely should not have. Sorry budget! Soon I will know all the things though, muhahahaha! In the meantime, I already know more than when I started as the author had me looking up various Norse terms and names and researching many of the references to Norse mythology.

“There comes the shadow- dark dragon flying,
The gleaming serpent, up from Dark- of- Moon Hills; He flies over the plain, and in his pinions he carries corpses.”

Speaking of, there are quite a few words or terms in the book that many readers will be unfamiliar with which could overwhelm. I was slightly worried initially but had no issues in the end and I think the point of view count helped with that. The Shadow of the Gods has the lowest count of character perspectives employed in any of John Gwynne’s novels. Generally, I’m not much bothered by the number of perspectives, unless it switches mid-series or there are far too many. For the most part, as long as characters are written well and distinctive, then I’m happy. In this case, though, I think the lower amount of POV’s is an excellent choice, tempering the unfamiliar terms with focused storytelling and providing a great balance. That said, I do hope that the final published book will have a glossary, as it would be valuable to be able to quickly consult it if needed. And now that I have mentioned hopes, can we get Johan Egerkrans to illustrate an edition? That would be just lovely. 🙂

Näcken by Johan Egerkrans

Lastly, the fights, the battles, the blood and brutality! Is there any author who can hold a candle to Master Gwynne in this department? If so, they are a rare breed indeed. Juxtaposed against the numerous quiet moments in the book, the violence that is so frequently required in Vigrid explodes off the page with savage intensity! Be it involving humans, trolls, fell-wolves, Tennúr, Tainted or Näcken, I doubt anyone inclined to bloodlust or the appreciation of cheese would name themselves unsatisfied whilst reading The Shadow of the Gods. And while Gwynne has long ago conquered this facet and earned the title of Battle Lord, his writing is still getting better and better, resulting in more intense, breathtaking encounters than ever before. The climax of this book brought with it unmatched ferocity, delivering bloodcurdling betrayal, crushing loss and spilling enough blood to turn rivers red, with John Gwynne’s characters carving a bloody path to a denouement that was as shocking and simultaneously exciting as they come. Masterful.

“I am blood. I am death, I am vengeance”

The Shadow of the Gods is without a doubt as emphatic an opening book as I have read, one of the best beginnings to a fantasy series yet and unquestionably John Gwynne’s best start. I am once again in awe of this author, and there are not many I can say that about on a regular basis. If you are a fan of the author or genre then this is a must-read – you will be doing yourself a disservice by not doing so. Thinking about all his other books has reminded me that I once named John Gwynne an official member of fantasy’s best of the best club. Those days are past though. John Gwynne is presently a member of the board and has his sights set on becoming the chairman.

“All is lies,” she murmured. “They call this the age of peace, because the ancient war is over and the gods are dead, but if this is peace . . .” She looked to the skies, clouds low and heavy, snow falling in sheets now, and back at the blood- soaked corpses.

“This is the age of storm and murder . . . ”

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.

View all my reviews

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

  1. Great review! I cannot wait to pick this one up, and any of his other work honestly!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.