The Shadow of the Gods is the first installment in a brand new series by John Gwynne, an author I have read consistently for the last few years. This time he takes on Norse mythology and incorporates it into a new epic fantasy trilogy called The Bloodsworn Saga. I watched the new Mortal Kombat movie right as I was finishing The Shadow of the Gods, and I was a) surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie and b) found myself realizing that my thoughts around the movie mirrored my thoughts on the book. Both are entertaining, filled with exciting action, have a mixture of good and bad characters, and have a plot that is both more and less than I wanted.
The plot of The Shadow of the Gods is very straightforward. We follow three different characters (Varg, Orka, and Elvar) murdering their way through the land of Vigrid, a battle plain where the gods fell. Vigrid used to be a land of mighty animal gods until their petty squabbling resulted in a fight to the death and broke the world. Now, the humans who survived the terrible fall of the gods hunt their divine demigod spawn to rid the world of the gods’ taint forever. Each of our main POVs is killing people for different reasons. Varg is looking to avenge the death of his sister and gets roped into a gang of mercenaries in his quest to find answers. Orka loses something precious to her and leaves a trail of bodies as she goes looking for what she lost. Elvar… wants people to think she’s cool.
The characters were an interesting mixture of positives and negatives. Orka is a deep and fantastically complex character but has this issue where she has already gone through her growth arc. She is a fully realized person who knows where she stands and doesn’t change at all over the course of the story. On the other hand, Varg is young and goes through a ton of growth over the course of the book, but he starts with almost no identity and very obviously feels like a reader insert character. Elvar on the other hand goes through an interesting growth arc and has a coherent personality, it’s just that the personality is terrible. Elvar is a princess who is escaping her family’s machinations to marry her off by running away with one of the many mercenary gangs that roam the lands. While I identify with her plight, she is just really hard to like as a person. She is fine with basically anything as long as it enhances the saga of her great deeds, and this includes things like wanton murder and slavery. To be fair, at the end of the book Elvar realizes she is basically a terrible human being and vows to get better – it just felt like a little late in the book to have this realization.
As for the action, prose, worldbuilding, and plot – here we have a more solidly positive performance. Gwynne’s action has always been fantastic, and this book is no combo breaker. The fights, of which there are many, are vivid and intense and do a great job lending ambiance to the world. The prose is still short and quick, which makes the book easy to just devour and hard to put down. The chapters are a little longer than Gwynne’s previous books (which helped define his writing style to me with their short length), but I didn’t mind the change. On the other hand, The Shadow of the Gods did feel like it spent less time focusing on messaging and themes and more time on action and excitement, which will appeal to some and turn off others.
The worldbuilding was phenomenal. Vigrid feels like this place that is both whimsical and terrifying at the same time. The world feels absolutely stuffed with adventure and just begs to be explored. Each of the POVs revolves around investigating a different piece of lore/legend and while the plot can feel a bit thin on the ground sometimes, you are always excited to see what is around the next corner. In many ways, the book feels like a prequel. A lot of information is intentionally kept from the reader until near the end of the book when all the plotlines come together. All of which coincides with a massive cliffhanger and set up for book two, which I am extremely excited about.
If you are a fan of intense action, The Shadow of the Gods will be one of your top picks of 2021. Its punchy pacing and vivid world continue Gwynne’s long record of fantastic reads that end up costing me sleep. Though the characters could have been a bit more even, I ultimately had a wonderful time with the story and the next book will be one of my most anticipated reads. If you are looking for an appropriately bloody take on Norse myth, look no further.
Rating: The Shadow of the Gods – 8.5/10