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The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsJohn Gwynne is probably not what you would call a great innovator, but he’s something just as good, which often gets overlooked in critical circles: a solid, reliable storyteller. The Shadow of the Gods, his first book in the trilogy The Bloodsworn, is the kind of unputdownable adventure you might remember reading as a kid, past your bedtime, with a flashlight under your bedcovers. “Just one more chapter,” you’d say, “one more chapter, then I’ll put it down and go to sleep.” But there was never just one more chapter.

Gwynne’s story is set on the continent of Vigrið, in a secondary world inspired by Norse legends and Scandinavian folklore. Three hundred years in the past, the gods of this land wiped each other out in their own Ragnarök, with such devastating results that it opened a crack in the world, releasing monsters called vaesen across the landscape. The story presents us with a harsh and violent world, where cold winds blow across desolate hills and valleys and along winding fjords. Yet, people manage to scrabble together a society in Vigrið that functions under the governance of local jarls, who keep slaves called the Tainted — magic users in whose veins the blood of one or another of the vanquished gods flows — to enforce their authority. Vigrið also has a queen, Helka, who is attempting to unite the country by getting all the jarls to swear fealty to her.

Gwynne’s world building here is not only Ridley Scott levels of immersive, he has crafted it with great care to appeal to the widest range of potential readers. Gwynne himself is a Viking re-enactor, so he knows a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to shield walls and warbands, and his richly realized setting will draw in fans not only from TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, but from games like God of War and Skyrim. Not to mention history buffs themselves.

Gwynne also chooses wisely in not overloading us with viewpoint characters or piling on the plot. We get only three, with the bulk of the story’s emotional payload pretty evenly distributed among them. Orka is a former warrior who has retired from the battlefield and now lives a bucolic life on a farm with her devoted husband Thorkel, whose love has a way of softening her rougher edges, and their small son Breca. When we read tender scenes between her and her family, we know deep in our bones this life of love and peace cannot last. After all, a rash of child-stealing has been plaguing their local community. But their jarl seems more interested in cementing allegiance to Queen Helka than protecting the people from immediate threats. Sure enough, circumstances soon find Orka in pursuit of her own kidnapped son, with blades in both hands and bloodlust in her heart.

Miles away, Elvar is a young woman who has walked away from her royal lineage, as the daughter of a jarl, where all she had to aspire to was being married off to secure one of her father’s political alliances. Now she is free to pursue her own battle-fame as a member of a mercenary warband, the Battle-Grim, under the benevolent command of Agnar, who feels more to her like a true father should. But the Battle-Grim end up completing a job that will dramatically change all their destinies, as a woman they were sent to capture is in possession of a secret that could bring wealth and battle-fame beyond their wildest dreams… if they survive.

Finally, Varg is a thrall who has murdered his master and escaped to hunt down those who bought and then cruelly killed his little sister. For this, he needs the services of a Tainted mage, who might do some spellcasting to locate her killers. Through sheer dumb luck mixed with a little audacity, he finds himself a probationary member of a famed warband called the Bloodsworn. While avenging his sister is always foremost in his mind, Varg nonetheless gains his first experience of freedom, brotherhood and true friendship, the ability to feel loyalty by his own free choice to companions he cares about.

Gwynne is entirely content to let events in this book take their time unfolding. It’s the best kind of slow-burn storytelling, because while we’re honestly most of the way through the book before anything like a clear overarching plot takes shape, we are never bored, simply because these characters are so compelling and their experiences so tactile. Gwynne displays his usual top-notch craft at sculpting fully realized human beings onto the scaffolding of such stock fantasy players as runaway slaves or disillusioned fighters or vengeful parents. The entire world of this story just takes gradual shape as we move through it, and it isn’t even until the tail end that Gwynne establishes any links between his three heroes.

Orka will probably have the most appeal to readers, but I’m partial to Elvar, who is motivated not merely by revenge but an earnest desire to better herself and shape her own destiny. (That women in this world have no less social status than men, fighting in the shield walls right alongside the men, is simply taken as a given.) Varg’s story at first seems to have less emotional urgency than Orka’s, because, whereas we spend time with Orka’s family at the beginning, Varg’s sister is already dead before we meet him. But his arc is fulfilled, not by avenging her, but by discovering the first sense of self-worth and belonging he has ever known among the Bloodsworn.

If you like bone-crunching violence, you’ve come to the right place. But while you can probably argue that Gwynne could use a dose of Joe Abercrombie’s sense of humor amidst all the carnage, Gwynne still rises well above standard-issue grimdark in giving The Shadow of the Gods as much heart as it’s got blood and guts.

Followed by The Hunger of the Gods.