In the Shadow of the Gods is well written, remarkably so for a debut novel. It is also extremely ambitious. It sometimes fails in that ambition. But it’s saved from the rather limited action and a somewhat threadbare plot by a quality of the writing and the strength of the characters drawn that leads to an immersive reading experience. It’s gritty and grim without descending into nihilism awash in bodily fluids.
The gods referred to in the book and series titles are the Twins, the children of the father god (Patharro) and mother god (Metherro). Per the mythology, the father and mother gods cast down and bound the Twins, Fratarro and Sororra. The cult of the Father and Mother is the orthodox religion in Fiatera, and natural born twins are killed on sight, usually drowned shortly after birth. There is a small cult of the Twins that seeks to protect twins (good) and extinguish the sun so that all are equal in the darkness (bad). In support of the latter they seek to free the Twins, which requires finding them and finding the limbs of Fratarro that were scattered to the winds.
It’s a nicely constructed mythology, and characters think about the gods and their religion in a way that rings true (cardboard cut-out religions being a particular weakness of your average fantasy). It is also suitably grimdark. It’s hard to root for people who want to kill the sun, or for people who preach infanticide. This passage, from the sequel, cuts to the heart of it:
“I bet you’d take a knife to me, too, if I gave you half a chance. How’s that any less murder?”
“Abomination, twisting my words—”
“How many babies’ve you killed, huh? Is it less murder if they only get in three breathes before you throw ’em in a river?”
“Does it count if they don’t even cry before you kill ’em?”
I said earlier the book is ambitious. Chiefly so in that it gives us multiple POVs from the get-go, as well as multiple time hops. We are introduced to Skal, a Northman found by southerners from a convict camp as a boy; Joros, an ambitious preacher of the Twins’ cult who rises into their leadership class after delivering a woman pregnant with twins to their mountain lair; Rora and Aro, “Scum” living among the gangs along the sunken canals of Fiatera’s capital city and hiding that they are twins; and Keiro, an itinerant preacher of the Twins’ cult.
We are introduced to each several years before the book comes to a head. Time hops are difficult to pull off, but Dunne does so with aplomb. They allow her to give us a window into who the characters are, usually by what terrible thing they survived. And, to be honest, I’m a bit tired of flashbacks. Dunne also excels at using little things to flesh out her characters. Keiro’s frequent internal thought that he is “made for walking” reminds me of a Marine who I met celebrating his retirement…by hiking the Appalachian Trail who told me his “odometer has turned over many times.”
All of this burns pages, though. In the Shadow of the Gods is short for modern, traditional fantasy at “just” 464 pages, but Heaven help me, it could have stood to be longer. Dunne likes to twist the knife, but too seldom the characters have a chance to swing a sword in return. And the climax doesn’t quite pack enough punch to adequately pay off what has to be seen as in large part set-up.
My only other complaint is that a book so evocative of snow and cold—look at that cover!—was released in the summer.
Come back next week for my review of the sequel, The Bones of the Earth, out on Tuesday, June 27!
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received an unsolicited review copy from the publisher.