*Thank you to Orbit for this ARC. All opinions are my own*
I've heard John Gwynne's name tossed around here and there as being one of the premier fantasy writers out there. I've never read any of his stuff, so when the opportunity presented itself to get hands on his newest release coming in May, I jumped on it. After finishing this novel, I can certainly see why he has the reputation that he does.
The Shadow of the Gods is a sweeping Norse epic tale, the type that makes you feel all the things. From the sweeping prose, to the in-depth characters, to the sprawling battles and grand adventures, to the intricate plots that tie up some places and leave ends hanging at others, this book had me engrossed from page one.
It follows the story of three POV characters. Orka is on a rescue mission for her son, who was taken from her by a mysterious foe. Varg is a runaway thrall - in this world, a thrall is chained at the neck and a prisoner to their owner - who will stop at nothing to find out what happened to his sister. Elvar is a jarl's daughter who spurns her lot in life to create her own destiny, wanting nothing more than to carve her own path into the epic songs. Each character is distinct in their voice, with understandable and relatable motives. They aren't perfect, as no one should be. But you become invested in their stories, and the writing is so in depth that, as mentioned before, you feel what they feel, taste what they taste, smell what they smell. It feels as if you are there with them, riding in the waves, hunting in the forests, fighting in the battles.
The worldbuilding is magnificent. The gods have destroyed the world, and in an epic battle for the sages, the great Dragon sister Lik-Rifa was betrayed by her siblings and chained beneath the ground to live in eternal torment hundreds of years ago. Each sibling left pieces of themselves into their children, called the Tainted. These are humans with special abilities derived from the gods, and most become thralls, chained and exploited for their powers.
Orka's story arc begins in a quiet setting. She is married to Thorkel, and they have a son, Breca. There are hints that Orka is more than what she seems: a powerful warrior who put aside her bloody ways to live a quiet life. But the warrior surges back into living, breathing color as she sets out on a rescue mission, joined by two brothers, Lif and Mord. They will help her, in exchange for her teaching them how to seek vengeance on the one who killed their father.
Varg's story arc begins with him, in a series of circumstances, joining the mighty Bloodsworn. They are a group of elite fighters for hire, seeking nothing but brotherhood, fame, and coin. Varg joins them in the hope of convincing their Seior witch to help him find out what happened to his murdered sister, the only person he ever loved in the world. They are soon conscripted to find out what is happening Queen Helka's lands, as children are disappearing and villages are being overrun by a mysteries force with unknown agenda.
Elvar's story arc begins among the Battle-Grim, who are much like the Bloodsworn in that they seek fame and fortune. She has left behind a privileged but constricting life with Grend, who is sworn to her, to be her friend and protector. The Battle-Grim's leader often tells tales of the infamous Skullsplitter, a warrior of such renown that songs are sung about them. They hunt down Tainted to return them for coin, and come across a particularly infamous Tainted, capturing him and his wife and son. A rival group attack and take the Tainted's son, Bjarn, and his wife Uspa convinces them to get her son back in exchange for revealing the final resting place of Lik-Rifa and her siblings, where much treasure is to be found.
Their stories weave seamlessly, and in a final, broad stroke, pieces come together, mysteries are solved, and honestly, if I ever have a child that's a girl, I'll want to name her Orka (okay, maybe that's overreacting a bit). But seriously. ORKA. The ending had me holding the sides of my head with my mouth dropping to the floor.
This engaging tale is full of battles, blood, friendship, and epic fame to be sung for ages. I can't rave about it enough. After finishing this, you will be left breathless, hungering for more. I will immediately be reading every book ever written by John Gwynne.
A huge 5/5 stars for me, in what is sure to be a favorite read of the year.