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The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIn the expansive second volume of his Norse-inspired Bloodsworn saga, John Gwynne sticks to the principle of all ambitious epic fantasy sequels: more of everything, but bigger. The Hunger of the Gods follows right on the heels of The Shadow of the Gods, and the gods here have a whole lot of hunger to satisfy. A hunger for revenge, a hunger for justice, a hunger to settle old scores. This is blood and thunder stuff to do the ghost of Robert E. Howard proud, and it might well be the best long-form storytelling Gwynne has accomplished to date.

The dragon god Lik-Rifa has been restored to life from her prison beneath the bleak northern wastes of Oskutreð, in the continent of Vigrið, and as you might suspect, she is extremely pissed. With the warband of the Raven-Feeders backing her, led by the aptly-named Ilska the Cruel, Lik-Rifa is summoning all of the vaesen, the creatures who broke free from the bowels of the earth at the climax of the war that destroyed all the ancient gods, to battle.

Orka Skullsplitter has reunited with the Bloodsworn, the famed warband she once led before abandoning them for a life of peace and domesticity. But she is still obsessively focused on finding her son Breca, abducted by Drekr of the Raven-Feeders along with multiple other Tainted children to be used in the ritual to revive Lik-Rifa. The Tainted carry the blood of the old gods in their veins, and as we have discovered, every member of the Bloodsworn as well as the Raven-Feeders is one (which leads me to think the first book really missed an opportunity by not including a scene in which all the characters point to each other like the Spider-Man meme). Meanwhile, Elvar, now chief of the Battle-Grim, has managed to place thrall collars upon no less than the resurrected wolf-god Ulfrir and his daughter Skuld, and plans to compel their aid in killing Lik-Rifa once and for all.

Gwynne punctuates his tale, in which disparate warbands forge desperate alliances as the fate of the world looks increasingly dire, with not only bloody, bone-crushing action scenes, but more attention to character and deeper immersion into the world of the story. In addition to the first novel’s three viewpoint characters, Orka, Elvar, and the former-thrall-now-Bloodsworn-warrior Varg, we get two more.

The villainous Guðvarr is a deeply pathetic, cowardly little weasel, whose every action is motivated by the most sniveling self-preservation. But there’s something about what a complete loser he is that brings this novel a refreshing sense of comic relief that The Shadow of the Gods, quite honestly, lacked. Guðvarr is a dismal failure of a man, yet somehow he manages to keep failing upward, staying alive while death rains down on everyone around him. And the traitorous Biórr, the Raven-Feeder who infiltrated the Battle-Grim as a spy, struggles with just enough guilt over his deeds that he nearly makes a fateful mistake.

I do have some gripes here. Most fans of this series declare Orka their favorite character, but her single-minded focus on “where’s my son, where’s my son” frankly makes her feel to me like she has the least depth of everyone. Moreover, Gwynne has the Bloodsworn be a little too forgiving, a little too bygones-be-bygones about the way Orka and her late husband Thorkel simply walked away from them. I mean, it’s not as if they’re exactly happy with her after all this time. But considering that one of the rules Gwynne has established for his world is that there is literally nothing more sacred and important than an oath, they still seem too willing to shed their resentment and welcome her back into their good graces.

Everyone else is, to be honest, far more interesting. Elvar must wrestle with the newfound responsibilities of leading her warband, while Varg grows more into the family he has found among the Bloodsworn, after spending all his life as a thrall. In the popular grimdark tradition, Gwynne has given us a world in which the good guys aren’t necessarily always good and the bad guys aren’t necessarily always bad. Lik-Rifa and her followers plan to go to war for what seems like a completely moral cause: the liberation of the Tainted from slavery, violence and oppression.

Gwynne keeps the novel pacey, despite its being over 100 pages longer than Shadow, and he builds momentum and tension impressively in the final third, as events lead to their climax and the next volume is set up. Overall, this is fantastic entertainment for fantasy readers who like their epics to ring with the clang and clash of steel and the rush of dragon wings in cold gray skies. If that’s you, I promise it will leave you hungry for more.

Followed by a sequel.