Fair-Fame But Not Legendary: John Gwynne’s Shadow of the Gods

I’m not quite sure how this book came onto my radar (apparently I shelved it as ‘Want to Read’ on GoodReads a day before it came out), but if memory serves, I was pretty pumped to read it about a year ago. I mean just LOOK at that dragon. I must have been hearing some pretty good reviews as well because I feel like I was pretty hype.

But I rarely pull the trigger on a new (to me) author right away, and it seems like one thing led to another (pretty sure I was in the middle of Song of Achilles and #WyrdAndWonder), and this Norse inspired epic sadly got pushed to the side and forgotten about.

Then, around the beginning of March (2022) I saw an epic wolf on the cover of a book and realized the two were connected. Once Netgalley approved me for an early review of Hunger of the Gods (oops that drakkar has sailed) it was time to get serious about reading Shadow again.

And What Did I think?

Well, I thought a lot. I’ll try not to go on to long, but like most books there were some things I liked, and some things I didn’t. I’ll write a bit about both before giving a final recommendation.

— (plz note, spoilers ahead) —

What Worked For Me:

The World Building – Gwynne did his homework for building out this world . . . and then probably some extra credit, and then maybe a PhD. I’m being a little flippant, but in reality, I have a ton of respect for the setting Gwynne created. Each detail from the clothing of the townsfolk, to the world altering battle between gods felt vivid and full. It was obvious that many of these details were taken from actual history, but assuredly quite a few were invented for the story, and I never knew the difference. I don’t have a ton of knowledge of Norse history or mythology, but I didn’t need to. Gwynne’s setting is revealed in stages and (for the most part) I was never confused by any of the funny spellings, or unfamiliar terms. For any Fantasy novel, this is a hard feat, but given the density with which these details availed themselves in SotG, I was doubly impressed.

Action Sequences – This author likes a good fight. And with a bunch of Vikings sailing around in search fame, fortune, demons, and missing children, there were plenty of good fights to be had. Again, attention to detail is what really made these scenes work. I’m not sure I’ve ever though much about choreography in a book before, but each move in SotG felt well thought out, real and easy to visualize (not to mention totally badass).

What Didn’t Work For Me

Too Similar CharactersSotG has three main characters, who despite different back stories and circumstances, kinda felt like the same character (to me). Varg was probably my favorite by the end. He’s a fugitive thrall who has escaped enslavement and needs to perform a ritual in order to find some information critical to his sister Froya’s death, and then enact his revenge. A lot happens in his attempt to achieve this goal, but ultimately his solution is to become a Viking and sail around fighting stuff.

Orka — who was my favorite at the start — has an awesome setup, with a son and husband living quietly out in the woods, hunting and investigating strange animal sightings. I was overjoyed to see this group emerge as I thought we might actually see a family go on an adventure together. Without spoiling too much, Orka ends up on her own, and must try to save her son. Her solution is essentially (again) to become a Viking and sail around fighting stuff.

Finally, Elvar deviates from the pattern in that, at the start of this book, she is already a Viking who sails around fighting stuff. She wants fame, glory, and a kind of immortality she believes those things will give her (I already mentioned Song of Achilles right?). Above all she wants freedom. She pursues this by continuing to be a Viking, sailing around fighting stuff.

Varg ended up being my favorite because I felt becoming a Viking and sailing around fighting stuff actually made the most sense for him to achieve what he wants (and also what he needs which is Viking bros!). For the other two characters? I think I wanted different stories . . . O well.

Voice – Different people have wildly different opinions on the actual prose authors use to get across their story. Some may prefer more modern language, while others feel this takes them out of the story. There is also this idea that authors should stick to the [perceived] constrains of their world, one of which being language. If a culture has not yet invented gun powder, then even an explosion fueled by magic cannot “go off like a bomb”.

Gwynne makes some interesting choices in the lexicon to create immersion in the world and give it a kind of ancient and brutal feel. One (at first) fun example is ‘thought-cage’ instead of mind. However some of these choices only served to hang up the reader during otherwise flowing prose. For instance, nobody in Vigrid or Iskidan seems to hold anything in their hands, only with their fists. A pretty brutal and fear inspiring description when grasping a weapon, but difficult to understand when holding something benign like a cup (not actually in the text but if committed to fully, you might expect to find fists used to describe the caress of a lover, yikes haha). I’m sure there are more examples of this kind of thing but these are just what came to me while writing this.


Ultimately yes. There is a lot to love in Shadow of the Gods, but also plenty which made it a struggle to finish. I enjoyed the setting and action sequences, but felt the character work could have used some more variety, and the prose sometimes made the story more difficult to understand, making me lose immersion rather than gaining it. In the end, was not an epic of which we will sing about in our blogging sagas (blogas?). It was just so-so.

I already have the sequel, Hunger of the Gods which I’ll probably read soon, but I won’t rush.

Alrighty, how wrong was I? Anyone read this book yet? Love it? Hate it? What was the most interesting part for you? Let me know in the comments.

See you next time!

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