I’ve been following John Gwynne for a long time, ever since the publication of his first book, Malice, back in 2012. I remember it coming out with little fanfare, relying on word of mouth along with John’s constant presence on twitter and goodreads. Ten years later Malice has over 18,000 ratings, thousands of reviews, and John has shot up into the pantheon of gritty, military UK fantasy authors, alongside David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell, two other excellent writers he is clearly influenced by.
The Faithful and the Fallen and Of Blood and Bone, John’s first series, convincingly mix an accurate and grounded anglo-saxon themed world with fantastical angels, demons, giants, and magic. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but John seems to do so almost effortlessly, bringing a realism to his characters and world that we don’t often see in epic fantasy.
Of course, that makes things even worse when John rips some of those characters away from us, something he seems to enjoy quite a lot!
The Shadow of the Gods, the first book in the Bloodsworn Saga, takes this melting pot of realism and fantasy, and applies it to a Viking setting. Those who follow the author know he is a Viking re-enactor, and it shows. John is at his best when it comes to describing the arms and armour of these northern warriors, we can imagine every link of chainmail, every sharpened axe (or seax). The rest of the world also comes across as very well-researched, from the food, to the lifestyle, to the language. The descriptions are never overly-long, just enough to paint an often bleak and grim picture!
Then John smashes this alternate Viking universe together with a mix of horrible creatures straight out of some of the more grisly norse myths and legends, creating untold havoc!
I prefer not to dive too deep into the plot in my reviews as the blurb on the back of the book should be enough to get you interested, and the story, like John’s previous efforts, takes some unexpected twists and turns that should not be spoiled. Suffice to say it focusses on three very different characters: Varg, an escaped thrall, Elvar, a mercenary, and Orka, a wife and mother. I enjoyed Orka’s story the most, she has arguably the most progression throughout the first novel, and the way she is depicted in the closing pages of the book is a colossal change from how her journey begins.
Like a lot of first books, there is a lot of foundation building here, we can almost see John setting up his tower of cards in preparation for what’s to come.
I am sure it will not be long before that fragile tower comes crashing down in a maelstrom of fire and blood. And I, for one, cannot wait.