Mythology has always been close to my heart and I love fantasy that explores traditional mythology in new ways. Jordanna Max Brodsky first set sights on the tales of Ancient Greece with her Olympus Bound trilogy. But her latest novel, The Wolf in the Whale, covers rarely trodden ground – Vikings and Native Americans.

I spoke to Jordanna about the differences in writing a series versus a stand alone novel, her love of mythology, female protagonists and more.

The Wolf in the Whale is out now from Orbit.

How did writing a standalone fantasy novel differ from working on a trilogy?

A trilogy creates the double challenge of writing three stories with their own satisfying arcs while simultaneously fitting them into a larger, series-long arc. It’s like running a race in interval spurts, and you can’t rest until the very end. The Wolf in the Whale is more like a marathon that ends with a thrilling sprint to the finish. I get to take my time introducing the reader to the ancient Inuit—a culture that, for most, is completely unfamiliar—and then adding element upon element of tension: shamanic metamorphoses, dangerous strangers, forbidden love, wrathful deities, Viking warriors, clashing cultures.

What do you find so fascinating about using old gods in your writing? Is there another pantheon you want to try to invoke in the future?

As a lover of both history and fantasy, I find mythology irresistible. Most fantasy authors have to construct their worlds from scratch—mine comes ready-made, full of weapons, settings, costumes, ancient languages, poetry, legends, and religions. I didn’t need to invent places like Nunavut or Iceland or Athens—I could actually visit them. Yet, because we’re talking about stories that take place millennia ago and myths that exist in many different versions, there’s plenty of room to find my own stories.

The gods themselves, whether or Inuit or Norse or Greek, make great characters.  Unlike the distant, amorphous gods of most modern religions, they’re profoundly human, capable of rage, despair, love, jealousy, and laughter. That’s a paradox I wanted to explore. At the same time, there’s a reason humanity has retold these stories for so long. They touch on themes as compelling today as they were a thousand years ago: loyalty and betrayal, metamorphoses and murder, family and exile.

For now, I’m taking a break from myth, but I haven’t lost my appreciation for stories grounded in our shared past. My next work is pure historical fiction set during the American Civil War, so I’ve got memoirs, maps, and even photographs to guide my imagination. Nonetheless, I expect I’ll return to myth at some point—there’s plenty more to explore within the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Inuit pantheons without even needing to venture into any others!  

Your previous series used ancient gods in a modern setting while The Wolf in the Whale is a historical fantasy. Why did you feel one worked in modern times but the other in the past? Which is more freeing while writing?

I set my novels in whatever period best suits the ideas and stories I want to explore. Setting the Olympus Bound trilogy in the present day allowed me to examine modern gender roles, and how those might be experienced by an ancient goddess clinging to a virginity-centered version of feminism. Admittedly, I also love upending readers’ preconceptions about religion—especially those that are rooted in inflexible, literal interpretations. Thus, I wanted to bring to light the traces of ancient paganism still influencing today’s faiths, such as the connections between Saturnalia and Christmas, Artemis and the Virgin Mary, or Mithras and Jesus.

What first drew me to The Wolf in the Whale, on the other hand, was the desire to shift our understanding of the European conquest of the Americas. Too often, we hear these stories from the same point of view, and too often, they end the same way—the Europeans win. In the medieval Norse sagas, however, we get a glimpse of a very different history, one in which the indigenous people of North America successfully chase the would-be colonizers from their shores. We think of the Vikings as nearly invincible warriors, spreading their culture from Russia to Iceland and beyond, yet here was one place they simply could not conquer. That is the story I wanted to tell, and I wanted to tell it from the perspective of the Inuit hunters who had arrived in the eastern Canadian Arctic at the same time the Vikings did. Both groups came looking for new lands and new resources. The Vikings eventually fled back to Europe. The Inuit, however, founded a civilization that has thrived in one of the harshest environments on earth for over a thousand years.

As for which setting is more freeing… Manhattan, no doubt. My Olympus Bound protagonist may be the ancient goddess Artemis, but she speaks and thinks largely in modern vernacular. The Inuit shaman at the heart of The Wolf in the Whale, on the other hand, has a completely different set of experiences to draw upon. At every turn, I have to make sure my medieval characters don’t use anachronistic metaphors or imagery. That’s a serious challenge, but a fun one.

What recent female writers and/or fantasy novels with female protagonists do you wish everyone would read? What makes them so good?

For anyone who hasn’t already read the Hugo award-winning Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, that would be my first recommendation. I also just finished—and adored—an advance copy of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by debut novelist Alix Harrow, which hits shelves this coming September. I love that Alix and N.K. both use intricate world-building and complicated female protagonists to tackle issues of injustice and oppression, but I am impressed most of all by their masterful prose. Reading their books, I get as much of a thrill from the surprising language, inventive structures, and shifting perspectives as I do from the gripping plots.

Pitch The Wolf in the Whale to us! Why should we be excited for it?

A thousand years ago, an Inuit shaman and a Viking warrior collide on the frozen shores of North America. Their meeting sets into motion a conflict not only between their peoples, but also between their gods. One that will shatter their new world—or save it.

The Wolf in the Whale is grounded in history but soars into myth, drawing readers into a world as beautiful as it is terrifying. It is a story of transformation and rebirth, of the melting of girl into boy, man into woman, and back again. Of a man with eyes the color of ice and hair the color of flame and a smile to warm the coldest night. Of sunlight that lasts for weeks and darkness that lasts for days, when only the most cunning will survive. Of Viking ships sailing above the Sea Mother’s grasping arms—and Inuit wolves running through a Norse god’s prophecy.  

Jordanna Max Brodsky hails from Virginia. She holds a degree in History and Literature from Harvard University. She lives in Manhattan with her husband.

When she’s not writing, Jordanna is likely either tromping through Central Park, hiking the mountains of Acadia National Park in Maine, traveling the world, reading Star Wars novels, watching far too many movies, singing along (badly) to Broadway musicals, or playing Settlers of Catan.