The gods are gone, killed centuries before in a war amongst themselves that saw the gods killed and the great dragon Rik-Lifa contained in a pit with nothing but corpses to feed in. At least, that is the legend, and anyone with god blood in them is considered Tainted. They are hunted down and leashed, forced to work for the jarls and other powerful non-Tainted humans. 

Elvar is a warrior with the Battle-Grim, mercenaries for hire, hunting Tainted but soon become caught up in a plot with a mysterious group who is stealing children all over the land. 

Orka’s son, Breca, is also among those taken and she will stop at nothing to find him again. A seasoned warrior, Orka knows how to get information and will not hesitate to kill when the situation calls; there is no one she trusts more to get him back than herself.

As the two women hunt separately for the stolen children, their paths draw close together, but will they find the children alive or dead?

The Shadow of the Gods is the first book in John Gwynne’s new series The Bloodsworn Saga and is told through three different characters. Orka is a warrior turned trapper who has lost her son. Elvar is a mercenary hunting Tainted people, and Varg is a runaway thrall searching for his sister’s killer. Each of these is compelling characters with different motivations with only Orka specifically hunting the child snatchers. These motivations carry the story forward and give us a break in the main plot which is heavy.

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

This story is strongly influenced by Norse mythology and history. My own interest in Norse mythology means I found the social structure and lifestyle of the characters accessible, but if this isn’t familiar to you, Gwynne gives excellent descriptions of hierarchy backed up by situations to further demonstrate how the characters’ world works. This means The Shadows of Gods is a long and intense book, which is both good and bad.

On the positive, there is no doubting Gwynne’s storytelling skill. He weaves an epic tale of gods and mortals and magic, creating a vivid landscape. His own background as a Norse reenactor has brought an element to the fighting scenes, elevating The Shadow of the Gods from other similar stories as it is full of gritty realism. 

Gwynne also created strong female characters. As in Viking culture, women are considered equal to men and have a place in the warrior gangs. At no point do other characters think Orka cannot rescue her son because she is a woman. Elvar has earned her place in the Battle-Grim through blood. Both Orka and Elvar are front and centre of any fight, intelligent and cunning, and not hesitating when action is needed. 

However, there are some downsides to someone writing on a subject they clearly love. Every time there is a battle, and there are many, the description is so rich each time it loses its impact. In short, Gwynne spoils us. All the knowledge slows the pace, so the first third of the book was very beautiful yet contained little main plot action. Any this tendency towards possibly more side story than needed continues throughout. An example comes later in the book when another character Varg, is waiting to face a troll, a pause in his storyline that goes over a couple of chapters. 

Those niggles aside, The Shadow of the Gods is an epic start to a new series full of violence and blood as well as companionship, love and wonder. As with any story about prejudice, I found myself firming on the side of the Tainted. No one can help their birth; they do not choose their parents, and so to be enslaved because of something your ancestors did years before you were born just strikes every nerve in my body. The Shadow of the Gods poses the nature/nurture question at the Tainted. Are the Tainted antagonists because of the blood in their bodies or because they are being punished by those without god blood for things they didn’t do?

This question and the explosive end has left me hankering for the next book. Highly recommended.