*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.
Author: John Gwynne
Series: The Faithful and the Fallen
Genre: Epic fantasy
First Published: 2016
Pages: 685 (Pan Books paperback edition, 2017)
My Rating: 5 stars
A fantastic and satisfying conclusion to one of the best fantasy series to grace the genre in recent years.
The nail-biting cliffhanger at the end of Ruin had me immediately reaching for the final book in The Faithful and the Fallen series, aptly named Wrath. John Gwynne does not keep the reader in suspense for long as the book picks up right where the last one left off. Drassil has fallen, the Bright Star’s warband decimated and scattered across Forn. Corban himself has been captured by the Jotun, a neutral force in the God War so far. Meanwhile, Asroth’s return draws near as his servants are close to collecting all the Seven Treasures and summoning him and his horde of Kadoshim into the Banished Lands. The stakes are high and only through truth and courage will the forces of good prevail.
Author: John Gwynne
Series: The Faithful and the Fallen
Genre: Epic Fantasy
First Published: 2015
Pages: 746 (Pan Books edition, 2016)
My Rating: 5 stars
The third instalment in John Gwynne's epic fantasy saga, The Faithful and the Fallen, is the series' longest, bloodiest and most epic yet.
The end of Valour saw the beginning of the God War with a host of Asroth's servants, the Kadoshim, being summoned to the Banished Lands. While Nathair comes to grips with the revelation that he is actually the Black Sun, Corban and his warband have fled Murias and journey towards the fabled fortress of Drassil in the depths of Forn Forest to prepare for the coming battle. Meanwhile, Edana returns to Arden to take back her homeland from the treacherous Evnis and merciless Queen Rhin, while Maquin and Fidele stoke the flames of a growing rebellion in the heartland of Tenebral.
With a story spanning the length and breadth of a continent, Ruin consists of a cast of fourteen viewpoint characters, from ancient giants to vengeful queens to heroic warriors. Each one is a thrill to read and Gwynne does an exceptional job in developing their interpersonal relationships and weaving their various plot strands together. I really like how he continues to focus on characters on both sides of the God War. It is not often we get to spend time with the villain(s) in a story and listen to their reasoning and justification for their dark deeds. It makes for compelling reading.
I have been engrossed in Corban's story from the start but by Ruin's end I realised just how much I love Camlin and Maquin's stories. Indeed they are my favourites. Like Corban, both have gone through some incredible character growth since Malice. I also really enjoyed reading the new point of view perspectives from Haelan, the true heir to Isiltir, and Ulfilas, the first sword of Isiltir's usurper king. The focus of their story naturally feeds into the greater plot.
Speaking of the greater plot, Gwynne delves deeper into the history and lore of the God War with some jaw-dropping revelations that took me completely by surprise. Gwynne continues to embrace some of the fantasy genre's most common clichés and turn them on their heads. There are more trips to the Otherworld where the Ben Elim and Kadoshim fight their eternal war, which I delighted in. It is a place of deep myth and mystery that is just ripe for exploring. We also finally get to see the fabled fortress of Drassil and it is as incredible as you might imagine.
Considering this is the God War, one would expect there to be plenty of war, and by Elyon, Gwynne does not disappoint. Ruin is by far the bloodiest book in the series, boasting the most battles and epic showdowns. There is a more fantastical element to the action than ever before with flesh-eating demons and bear-riding giants joining the fray. Gwynne continues to put readers in the front line of the shieldwall beside Veradis and right in the heart of the bloodshed. The way he writes action is superb, striking a fine balance between vivid detail and an unrelenting pace.
John Gwynne is a master storyteller. There is no doubt about it. Malice and Valour are brilliant books and I gave each a five-star rating on Goodreads. Ruin, on the other hand, is on another level, and deserves a solid six stars. It left me in ruins (pun totally intended), ending on a nail-biting cliffhanger that had me immediately reaching for the fourth and final book in the series, Wrath.