Synopsis: It is 300 years after the twilight of the gods, when the gods killed each other. Their tainted children, all those who have the blood of the gods within them, life as thralls in the Norse land of Vigrið.
The story follows three warriors: Varg is a former thrall who seeks revenge for the murder of his sister, if only he knew them. He is about to find a new home among a group of mercenaries called the Bloodsworn. Orka is a mother and a warrior on a mission to find her kidnapped son and take vengeance. Elvar seeks battle-fame and an undying name among another group of mercenaries, the Battle-Grim, who hunt trolls and other tainted because they give good money.
“You are Berak Bjornasson, and the blood of the dead god Berser
flows in your veins. You are Tainted, you are Berserkir, and you are
wanted by three jarls for murder, blood-debt and weregild. And
now you are mine,” Agnar said, and smiled. “You will fetch a fine
All three have some mystery in their past which unfolds only late in the story.
Review: Shadow of the Gods starts a new series, The Bloodsworn Saga, by John Gwynne. I haven’t read anything yet by this prolific author, but it shows that this isn’t his first novel. One can literally feel how much Gwynne, a Viking re-enactor, loves the Nordic way of living with all its mythology.
He sprinkles his love with a lot of world-building, stuffed with Islandic terms and sentences. You’ll find blóð svarið, a blood oath, or nålbinding caps, and other terms similarly like the typical Nordic trope of blood eagles. The only negative thing I can say about strange terms is Gwynne’s notion of “thought-cage” for the mind – he uses it so often, 70 times in summary, and each time it drew me out of the immersion.
Magic goes through runes and Icelandic sentences:
Blóð drekans, lík rífa, voldugur, sameina og binda, brenna þessa hindrun,
opna leið fyrir herra okkar
The reader doesn’t need to know the meaning (though my ebook reader readily translates them on the fly), but they let you immerse yourself in this world just like all the well-chosen names do. Those battle descriptions with shield-walls, stabbing spears, wounds, shouts will suck you in and provides a sense of reality opposing the otherwise clear Fantasy setting.
It’s not exactly our mediaeval Viking world. The gods of Vigrið were real there, magic is happening right now, and their god-blood gives the Tainted advantages in battle that others can only dream of. It is an original world, mixing elements from Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series (including “arselings”), and Viking’s Lagertha and Ragnar Lothbrok plus a lot of magic and gods. A world which is as beautiful as cold, and Gwynne invites you to live within its snowy landscapes.
Gwynne takes his sweet time setting up the novel. Not that there aren’t enough fights, sense-of-wonder, or suspense in the first half. But the story doesn’t clarify, where all is heading to, why there are three characters, and what they have to do with each other. While this might sound slow, it isn’t: the story sucked me in and kept me on my toes from start to finish. Towards the end I pushed through in a marathon read, because I couldn’t put it down anymore.
All three main characters are interesting, and well-motivated. Some readers will prefer Orka as a tough mother, and the only one fighting for her own instead of being part of a warband. Elvar’s story is slower in the first half and really takes speed in the second half. For me, it was Varg and his way into the Bloodsworn mercenaries. Both groups of mercenaries have secondary characters which are fully fleshed out and have interesting stories of their own right. They remember me of Glen Cook’s Black Company. Yes, it’s a harsh and dark world, full of murder, aggression and fighting.
I’m very looking forward to the second book in the Bloodsworn saga, The Hunger of Gods, which is about to appear this April.
Highly recommended for fans of darker, epic fantasy with multiple point of views, full of scary monsters, magic, and gods.
Meta: GoodReads. Published in the UK at 27.01.2022 by Little, Brown Book Group