The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne (The Bloodsworn Saga: Book 1)

Living in the shadow of dead Gods isn’t easy. In a world shattered by divine anger and jealousy, it takes everything you have to survive. And to thrive? Well, that takes a hell of a lot more. A will to win. The skills to kill and not be killed. Plus a war band of extremely dangerous friends so you never have to tackle bloody murder and life’s mayhem alone. When the high stakes competition for relics, money, and power means that you’re up against other highly-trained mercs, short of nothing but gold and morals, then it’s do or die. Now the jarls are upping the ante, vying for the spot at the top, and there are some shadowy figures plotting to seize an even grander prize. What was once a perilous place has just become even more deadly…

Now that the intro is out of the way, let me get to the subject I really wanted to talk about: Orka. One of the three main voices in the book and one of the greatest fantasy characters of all time (yep, I’m making that call). I am obsessed. She’s earned her place on my favourites list and I can’t see anyone moving her (I’d like to see them try). Anyone who has read Gwynne before will know that his characterisation is superb, his books populated by characters that readers genuinely care about. We love them because they’re an emotional investment that always pays off, even if it sometimes comes in the form of uncontrollable sobbing. But if this was something he did well before, then Orka is another level of brilliance. Something about her grabs you from the start. It’s weird because at first you don’t really know whether you like her or not... but you can’t look away. There’s strength there, no doubt about that, and more than a hint of violence. She’s one of those rare female characters who gets to be a mother, a partner, and a warrior with not a single breath of stereotype or limitation. Even now, even in Gwynne, I still get moments when I think to myself ‘Damn, you’re really going to let her be all that... really?’ Yes, really. She’s complicated, striving to mediate her conflicting roles and all the parts of herself. What’s more, she’s doing it while the world turns to shit around her. Her arc in this book is surprising as hell. In fact, everything about her is indescribably epic and I can’t wait for you all to meet her.

Of course, she’s not the only memorable character in the book. The author turns his deft hand to a whole cast of misfits. The beauty of a dog eat dog world like this is that it makes for some seriously interesting people. Most of them armed with multiple weapons and an attitude problem. There are no real heroes in this book, or not in the way I read it. They’re too real for that, good and bad and everything between. Saying that, there are some who are worse than others. I swear if one particular person doesn’t get their comeuppance at some point, I’m having words with Mr. Gwynne... When it comes to the world, the author mixes history, myth, and magic to create a somewhere so convincing that I never doubted it for a second. It’s the kind of place that seems familiar enough that you feel right at home, until you turn a corner and all of a sudden you’re somewhere totally unexpected. A strange land made of bones and filled with monsters. The effect is emphasised by clever changes in focus. For the most part it remains small and close - the detailed descriptions of clothing, the types of armour and ships, the relationships between characters. Then the battles crash in, bloody and brutal. At times the shot is widened and we can see the scope of it all, landscape and narrative both. It is spectacular.

I’m not talking about the plot. It surprised me. This rarely happens. That’s all I’m saying.

One last point. That cover. Is this the best book jacket you’ve seen for years? Because if so, same. It was a bold choice to go for something so different from what we usually see in the genre and wow, does it ever WORK. It could easily have been a man with a shield and sword... You know, the usual. Instead, it’s beautiful and striking and looks incredible in real life. I have the arc but I will be buying a special edition too. No doubt about that. It hardly takes much convincing for Gwynne fans to rush out and buy his new series, so creating this amazing looking book is like putting an extra bow on top of an already awesome present. Well done to the artist, Marcus Whinney, and to whoever commissioned him.

So, what else is there to say? Go click that pre order button.

10/10 His characterisation is superb, his books populated by characters that readers genuinely care about

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