THE SHADOW OF THE GODS (Book One of The Bloodsworn Saga) by John Gywnne.
Orbit Books h/b May 2021 £15.19. Kindle version £9.99
Reviewed by Ritchie Valentine Smith
John Gwynne is an impressively prolific UK fantasy writer, an award-winner with a strong fan base. ‘The Shadow of the Gods’ begins a new series – the ‘Bloodsworn Saga’. It’s a refreshingly different fantasy (except for being all-white) with a background in the Norse world of the Vikings. The three main characters are Orka, a very deadly fighting woman (spoiler alert) in search of her kidnapped son, Varg, a former thrall and now fighting man who joins the Bloodsworn (a very tough mercenary force), and Elvar, a warrior in the Battle-Grim (a very tough mercenary force). They are drawn well, but I wondered if all main characters had to be fighting men and women using the same or similar weapons. This, and the endless albeit impressive fighting, can make the book a little samey. But when it works, it really works.
At the start, the book is a bit plot-light, and the narrative could get to the point more quickly. There are unforgettable moments in this book, though in the first quarter or so, the viewpoint characters sometimes do little more than view events. Though there are fantastic individual scenes – I particularly liked the fight with the troll – the impressive sound and fury here don’t add up to much as quickly as it could. However, momentum does build, especially in Orka’s story, and the three separate groups of characters all head North. One of the mercenary outfits crosses the lava-filled ‘vaesen pit’ and gets all the way to the legendary Northern killing ground where the gods fought one another. That’s Elvar’s band, the Battle-Grim. It’s fair to say you won’t be disappointed by the showdown at the end.
However, not all is great. Let me give an example of Gwynne’s invention, which is excellent, and also cite a typical small problem with the narrative. In Chapter Twenty-One, we encounter the skeletal ruin of the dragon god Snaka, so huge that there is a fort, town and port built into the dead god’s gigantic skull. Now that is a memorable image. But then tension is dissipated when we follow Elvar up to the fort, which has about six layers of security – with each guard described in dulling detail. (There is, however, a great ‘reveal’ at the end of this chapter.)
So, strengths. This book is well researched and convincing, especially when it comes to weapons and weapons-craft. John Gwynne is a Viking re-enactor, and it shows. Food and feasting are described with authority. Look at the feast in Jarl Logur’s hall, for example. You can almost taste the food and smell it – and also smell the latrines. This isn’t a prettified piece of fantasy: this is the brutal North. It’s also stylishly written: ‘(a) feeling swelled in his chest. Something that was almost incomprehensible to him as his freedom. He felt a glimmer of joy.’ Perhaps the greatest plus factor is the very considerable amount of invention. The gods of this world fought and died, leaving powerful relics like their bones behind. They also have ‘tainted’ children who have inherited some of their powers. The various monsters, sea-serpents and trolls and others, are superbly drawn. The violence is scary, and some scenes (see Chapter Thirty-Six) are genuinely unsettling and eerie.
This book is fierce. (I do have the uneasy feeling that violence is a large part of its appeal. Surely fighting isn’t the only thing worth describing? I suspect Gwynne could extend his range and still bring a very large audience with him.) To be frank, if I was editing this book, some of the first third would be gone, and there would probably be more maps, and most certainly, there’d be a glossary. But, overall, in terms of world-building, invention and quality writing, John Gwynne’s book is divisions above a typical churned-out fantasy. When it got going, I really enjoyed it. I suspect the book may not be to everyone’s taste, but true fans of John Gywnne will find it compelling. ‘The Shadow of the Gods’ may have some flaws, but it is also original, full of colour and incident – and great.