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


Rating: 10/10


Synopsis

Set in a brand-new, Norse-inspired world, and packed with myth, magic and bloody vengeance, The Shadow of the Gods begins an epic new fantasy saga from bestselling author John Gwynne.

After the gods warred and drove themselves to extinction, the cataclysm of their fall shattered the land of Vigrið.

Now a new world is rising, where power-hungry jarls feud and monsters stalk the woods and mountains. A world where the bones of the dead gods still hold great power for those brave – or desperate – enough to seek them out.

Now, as whispers of war echo across the mountains and fjords, fate follows in the footsteps of three people: a huntress on a dangerous quest, a noblewoman who has rejected privilege in pursuit of battle fame, and a thrall who seeks vengeance among the famed mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn.

All three will shape the fate of the world as it once more falls under the shadow of the gods . . .


Review

A Massive thank you to NetGalley and Little Brown Book Group for a copy of The Shadow of the Gods in return for an honest review.

This is a spoiler free review; I’m going to leave out a lot of what I want to write in hopes I leave as much magic in this book as possible.

You know the sort of book that when you read that final sentence it leaves you feeling like you’ve been stabbed in the gut? That lingering feeling of confusion, “what am I supposed to do with my life now?” you say to yourself, before you start trying to figure out how many days you will roughly have to wait till the next book is released? John Gwynne writes those sorts of books, and this is that kind of book.

John Gwynne’s first book, Malice, came out in 2012, and even with the fact that Gwynne is a writer that manages to bring out a book almost yearly, I’ve still had to spend a lot of time with this crippling feeling of loss every time one of his books ends and I’m left waiting for the next. The Faithful and the Fallen’s final entry left me in a book depression that took me weeks to bounce back from, and now he’s plunged me back into the pit of despair as we start that cycle all over again. Whether you’ve just started your first ever visit to the Banished Lands or you are a seasoned veteran you will know why Gwynne’s readers love his books. In my opinion Gwynne is possibly the best epic fantasy author we have right now, his writing is incredible, and manages to stay consistently incredible across all of the areas that are needed for a true epic fantasy.

Even if you haven’t read any of my posts yet, you have probably realised that I’m a little bit of a John Gwynne fan, and it should be no surprise that I absolutely adored this book. The Shadow of the Gods was my most anticipated book of the 2021 and honestly it was a painful couple of months watching twitter receive their ARCs. I wasn’t lucky enough to get a physical copy, and even trying to trade the Gwynne family my future first-born wasn’t enough to achieve that apparently, but luckily, I did get an eBook and thank God I did. However, regardless of my fanboying, there is no need to be concerned of my bias showing during this review, because this book didn’t need it. It was a truly spectacular debut to Gwynne’s new world and probably the easiest five-star review I’ve ever given, The Shadow of the Gods was superb.

Our setting is the shattered lands of Vigrið, the battle plains, the graveyard of the Gods. The people of Vigrið spend their lives fighting over the scraps of these long dead Gods, trying to forge their own homes and kingdoms, even building their homes in the bodies of these fallen behemoths. Gwynne has done an amazing job of forming this world, and it was probably his best effort at world building so far. Vigrið is a lot smaller than The Banished Lands we saw previously, and this really allowed Gwynne to flesh out this world with so much more detail. You can really see that this was a passion project for Gwynne, the immense amount of research that was undertaken and the love for history really shines through in his writing. Vigrið truly feeling like something taken straight out of the Norse history and Mythology, filled with vibrant and terrifying monsters, dripping in things we recognise from the stories, even getting to see the famed Blood Eagle at a point. There’s so much I want to go into about the intricacies of Vigrið, and the people and beasts that live there, but I want to leave that for you to find out.

Now almost any avid reader of Gwynne will tell you that his greatest talent is his ability to write incredible characters and it seems that he is really trying to outdo himself. The reason I believe Shadow of the Gods sets itself above Gwynne’s previous offerings is because we have the greatest set of characters he has written so far, and that is really hard to say because I feel like I’m betraying the Brightstar and I’m a little ashamed of myself. TFatF had over the course of its four books, fourteen characters getting their own POV chapters, and this has its upsides. Gwynne’s character writing is so good that each one of those characters is someone you’re invested in, someone that you are emotionally attached to and each person that Gwynne writes about is interesting to read. But on the flipside, it also sucks spending so much time away from those characters you care about the most, especially when most authors enjoy ending their chapters with mini cliff-hangers. Instead, The Shadow of the Gods is split between just three POV characters and I couldn’t be happier about Gwynne streamlining his story and focusing his writing into less characters this time round. This is in part due to the difference in scope between Gwynne’s two worlds, we have a smaller world with a more condensed storyline, because of that Gwynne has been able to focus all of his energies into these three stunning characters.

Orka, Orka, Orka, a name I have heard whispered through the community over and over as I sat by and watched people devour this story. A legend building as I hear this name, and the reason I need to read this book more and more. Orka turned out to be everything I hoped for, the hype was true, and I honestly believe that Gwynne has written one of the best characters that we will ever see in Fantasy. Not only this, but some of the most beautiful and daunting prose Gwynne has ever written were in Orka’s chapters and the level of writing he produced was stunning. A woman that I can imagine going toe to toe with God of Wars Kratos, or Abercrombie’s The Bloody Nine, it is those moments of rage and blood intertwined with the interactions and developments between her and her family that make Orka so perfect. I could quote her hundred times over and I could sit here and write about how incredible every chapter was, but I want you to read that magic for the first time and not have it ruined by myself.

“Orka shook her head. “You are like rune magic to me, Thorkel Ulfsson. How is it we have faced the same horrors, fought the same battles? The Terrible things we have done. And yet…” She sighed. “I do not feel like a young horse before green meadows. How are you so strong, where I am so weak?”

“Weak, are you moon touched, woman? I would not challenge you to an arm-wrestle, let alone a holmganga duel”.

Varg is next, this poor man is trying to fulfil the oath he has made to find out what happened to his sister in her final moments, so he is able to avenge her. Varg’s story is one of pain, sadness, and ultimately, revenge. His path finds itself intertwined with the legendary Bloodsworn, a famous group of warriors and monster hunters after whom this series was named after. Using my keen detective skills, I have deduced that Varg and the Bloodsworn might be fairly important to the story. Varg’s story is wonderful to read, a Thrall for all his life, the moments of comradeship and happiness he finds during his time with Bloodsworn leaves your heart aching, all of those moments being tinged with guilt as he struggles to believe he should be allowed these slivers of joy. Gwynne has written such a wonderfully complex character that you cannot help but become emotionally attached. The Bloodsworn also make for a wonderfully entertaining bunch of characters which really add to the enjoyment when you get to his chapters, Einar and Svik add these little sparks of fun into the story and are wonderful additions, I hope Gwynne decides to keep them around, but you can never really tell with him.

Elvar is the final member of our cast, and probably the character I was least attached to, her story took a little while to really suck you in but when it finally did it added a distinct weight to the story and she certainly carved her way into your chest. Elvar is part of the Battle Grim, another of Vigrið’s mercenary groups, not quite the heroic band that Varg finds himself with but fearsome all the same. Elvar’s story may be a slow burn and you don’t get a lot from her at the beginning, but she becomes a much more complicated character as the book goes on and you cannot help but love her. Grend is Elvar’s shadow and is both a quiet mountain and someone who manages to bring a chuckle to almost every chapter, I really loved his addons in Elvar’s story and I need more Grend content. For me, her final few pages were some of the most exciting in the book and I really see her exploding to the forefront in book two of the Bloodsworn saga and knowing what Gwynne can do with characterizations I would not be surprised to see her competing with Orka for that number one spot in our hearts.

“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.”

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I’m a sucker for a decent fight. I want a few axes and a good shield wall; I want to see death and destruction and the necessary grandiose battles that come with most fantasy and that’s all you need to have me hooked. So, on the plus side for me this may be Gwynne’s most violent book to date (which is real hard considering all his previous books ended in pretty epic levels of bloodshed). On top of everything else Gwynne can do, the man can write action and there are very few equals when it comes to writing scenes filled with groups of people hitting each other with big pointy weapons. Gwynne writes in a way that makes you feel like you are there in the shield wall yourself, he makes you understand and feel the danger of that spear flying past your face or the power behind the axe that just split the man next to you in half. Gwynne writes like he himself stood in that shield wall and felt the spear fly past his face, and honestly learning about the Gwynne family, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were many of the things they’ve re-enacted. We had some beautiful fights in this book and I’m sure the scale will only ramp up. I’m excited.

The Shadow of the Gods is grim, brutal, intense, epic fantasy at its best and absolute joy to read, Gwynne never wasted a page, every word fitting together like a perfectly made jigsaw. this was some of the best writing we’ve seen from Gwynne and it will only continue to get better. I can’t wait to read more of these spectacular characters and find out more from this incredible world Gwynne has built.

In my humble opinion John Gwynne continues to secure his position as the best Fantasy author around right now.

Thanks for reading.

p.s I want to keep writing but I can’t, I’ve retyped this piece over and over and I’m still not happy with it. I don’t believe I can do this book justice. So instead, read it yourself, The Shadow of the Gods is out on the 6th May and you can purchase over at https://www.thebrokenbinding.co.uk/product-page/the-shadow-of-the-gods-john-gwynne

Use my Affiliate code for 5% off – DFREVIEW221

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