The Shadow of the Gods is the first in a new series from John Gwynne, whose previous tales I’ve enjoyed immensely. It’s set in a new world, rather than using his existing setting - this one seemingly influenced by Norse mythology. From sea-faring, battle-fame hungry raiders, to societies trembling on the precipice between local consensus and monarchy, from dead gods to magic scribed in runes and blood, and a thousand other cuts of the axe, comes a vividly realised world, often brutal, occasionally lethal, but with a living, breathing beauty running through it, around a core of hard steel tipped in carmine.
This is a world that really is, no joke intended, in the shadow of the gods. A war in the heavens left the world broken, new geography, and scattered remnants of humanity, forced labour in this conflict of divinities. Centuries later, the gods are dead, their bones, their magic, scattered across the world. Their part-human descendants carry magic, but not power; the mass of humanity is determined never to live through another war of gods, so attempts to restrain or eliminate these scions of old powers. That said, the society they live in is, itself, no picnic for anyone. There’s a significant warrior class, with a desire for glory running through them like fool gold; but they also have their own traditions, their own compromises, their own conflicts. They do live alongside farmers, villagers, those who sought the stability of the land over the glory of the whale-road. Of course, there are transitions from one to the other - warriors coming home to turn their swords into ploughshares. Gwynee crafts a world which feels very real,at a social level, in its divisions and complexities. Smaller groups of villages are finding themselves swallowed up by the “protection” of armed bands, themselves falling under the sway of proto-monarchs, looking to consolidate their power-bases.
It’s a world that is cold, and makes a people hard. They know their lives are often unstable, and on the edge of a blade at any given moment. There’s a liminal social space, as old, more informal institutions slowly falter, and newer, more hierarchical structures lock into place. But that space is filled with warriors out for blood, gold, and fame. It’s a joy to read through, feeling the snow edge through the links in chale of in mail, the chonk of a shield-wall coming together, the scream as an arrow enters a throat, or the sizzle of flesh under the influence of magical fire; it’s also filled with that quieter, suppressed power of the descendants of the old gods, their blood letting then shift into killing machines, or follow the smell of blood, or see the last moments of life, and death. This is a world which has magic built into it, which has violence built into it, has wonder and old horror at it’s core - and will convince you and grip in equal measure
That’s helped by Gwynne’s top-notch characterisation. We get three points of view through the text, from a seasoned, retired warrior, looking out for her family, from an ex-thrall, entering onto a career of organised violence, and a young man entering into a band of mercenaries. They each have a voice of their own, which is marvellous. Orka’s quietly lethal, no nonsense attitude, twinned with her deep love of her family, and her casual abrasiveness contrast wonderfully with Varg’s desperation and determination never to be a slave again, and Elvar’s youthful energy and desire to make her own reputation, running into the rocks of reality. Each chapter feels like a breath of fresh mountain air, each voice memorable, different, bringing something new to the table. You can feel their wants and needs, both conscious and otherwise, running at and under the surface. You can see Orka enfolded in the warmth of her family, prickly as she is, and you can see Varg’s trauma as he tries to define himself in freedom, even as you marvel at Elvar’s possibly unearned confidence.
They’re all people, is the point. Bloodily, beautifully human, believable people who could step off the page and have a drink with you, quite possibly before stabbing you in the eye. They take the fabric of the world and shape it, and in that shaping, they feel whole, feel real.
I won’t speak to the plot, even more than usual. I’ll say this though, the book sets expectations, subverts them, realises them, works around them and through them. Every chapter is a new moment, as things go wrong, spin out of control, are rebuilt, where betrayals are realised or courage applauded. There’s...so much going on. And the story is precision crafted to enrapture, to exercise a gritty sense of wonder. It’ll grab hold of you as you read, and it won’t let go until the story is done.
This is an absolute barnstormer of a story, one I was up until way too late at night reading. I thin you will be too. Give this one a try.