Death of the Gods: A Review of The Witch’s Heart, by Genevieve Gornichec

Norse mythology may be more popular than ever at the moment, in no small part due to the influence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the versions of Thor and Loki we see in the movies are far from their historic portrayals.  While we call it a mythology, on part with Greek or Japanese mythology, what we know of the religion of the Vikings was not written down until after Christianity had already converted the population.  As opposed to the Greeks, who recorded their tales in the forms of poems or plays, the Norse only left behind a few glyphs or runic art pieces in their wake.  But the two written sources we do have, the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson and the Poetic Edda by numerous anonymous authors, paint a picture of the gods unlike their modern counterparts.  Like the gods of ancient Greece, the gods of the Norse were fallible.  They were corrupt and vain and jealous, capable of great cruelty and constantly making mistakes.  These cultures worshiped gods very similar to mortals, with all of their flaws, and they were not heroes.

There have been retellings of Norse mythology before in many formats, including the excellent Norse Mythology compilation by Neil Gaiman, which I recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about the tales complied in the Poetic and Prose Eddas.  However, these retellings usually take a broad approach to the mythology, going through each of the original stories and rewriting it to be engaging for a modern audience.  Rather than do that, Genevieve Gornichec has decided to focus on a singular character for her excellent novel, The Witch’s Heart.  In the Eddas, the character of Angrboda is only mentioned once by name, as the mate of Loki and mother of monsters.  However, the character may appearance in other tale as well, which served as the inspiration for Gornichec’s take.  As the mother of Hel, the goddess of the underworld, Fenrir, the Fenris wolf who is destined to kill Odin, and Jormungandr, the Midgard serpent fated to kill and be killed by Thor, Angrboda is one of the most important characters in all of Norse mythology.  Gornichec’s novel takes what little we know about this giantess and expands upon it, turning Angrboda into a full-fledged heroine and imbuing her with an incredibly engaging personality.

The Witch’s Heart begins just as Angrboda awakens in the Ironwood after being cast out from Asgard.  At the start, the close third-person narration allows her to reflect upon her time among the gods and er service to Odin.  An ancient witch, she practices the art of seid, a magic capable of telling and shaping the future, which Odin coveted.  While Angrboda agreed to teach him, to an extent, he eventually turned on her after she refused to delve too deep into the future’s secrets.  With this start, Gornichec showcase her extraordinary knowledges of the stories, while setting the tone for her take on the tale.  Angrboda is here combined with the myth of Gullveig, whose burning by Odin served as a catalyst for the Aesir-Vanir war, or the first war between the gods.  The novel then quickly moves to Angrboda’s first, and fateful, meeting with Loki.  Recovering from her burning, alive and with her heart cut out and missing Loki appears as an irreverent, handsome man carrying her heart in his hand.  The opening scene between these two characters sets the tone for the story, as the intimate connection they share shapes the central conflict.

However, every story needs an antagonist, and The Witch’s Heart finds one in the form of Odin, king of the Aesir.  In developing him as an antagonist, Gornichec does not even need to stray too far from the source material.  Like Zeus in the Greek pantheon, Odin is not a heroic character.  He covets knowledge and power, and hoards such treasures for himself.  He attempts to execute Angrboda before the novel begins for refusing him, and once he realizes that she is alive, he continues to hunt her to obtain the power and knowledge she possesses.  Through Loki’s visits to Angrboda, we also hear about the stories from the Eddas, and Gornichec keeps with the portrayal of the gods as oathbreakers and cheats, including Odin.  They make promises they have no intention of keeping, and look for ways to game the system when they are held to their promises.  Thor also makes a few appearances, and Gornichec’s does a fantastic job at showcasing the classic Thor.  In short, he is a thug with a hammer, far from the superheroic Marvel character we know today.  However, the true villain of the story is not a singular character, but a concept.  Fate itself, as Ragnarok approaches on the horizon. The end of all things, followed by the rebirth.  In short, change.

While we spend every page alongside Angrboda, is far from the only main or important character.  First and foremost is Loki, her eventual husband and the father of her children.  This portrayal Loki fits into the trickster archetype while humanizing and preventing him from becoming a static character, despite the chaos.  He is not a schemer here, but someone who follows their whims, even when those whims inevitably result in his getting in trouble.  We see him having to fix his own mistakes, while also being forced to cover for the mistakes of the Aesir.  For Loki is not just a trickster, he is also their fixer. We also spend some time wih Angrboda’s three children, although the most attention is paid to Hel, the eventual goddess of the underworld.  However, Gornichec makes the very cool choice to allow us to grow with her through childhood, and shows how Hel is victimized by the gods, only to take ownership of her punishment.  Alongside these characters, we also spend time with Skadi.  Skadi is a Jotun, or giant, who later becomes a god of hunting alongside the Aesir, although she has no love for them.  Her friendship, and later more, with Angrboda serve as a surprising backbone to the story and serve as one of the most interesting relationships in the novel.

Of course, no retelling or adaption of Norse mythology is complete without the inclusion of Ragnarok.  Unlike many other mythologies of the world, the collections of Norse mythology we have specifically include the end of the world, in definitive terms.  We know exactly how Odin dies, and who kills him.  We know what events lead to Ragnarok.  We know that, rather than one specific instigator, it is a multitude of things that lead to this final conflict.  In The Witch’s Heart, Gornichec keeps Ragnarok as a central part of the mythology by having knowledge of the event become the central treasure that Odin seeks.  In a way, fate is the true antagonist of the story, as Angrboda watches events unfold as predicted, knowing full well that her friends and family will die.  However, the way in which Gornichec includes this slow march towards destruction is very interesting, and manages to avoid becoming a cynical, unavoidable plot point.  Ragnarok is inevitable, and yet the free will of the characters makes it happen.  In a way, The Witch’s Heart is a book about fate and what people will do in possession of the knowledge of that fate.

The Witch’s Heart is a fantastic read or lovers of Norse mythology, but there is also plenty here for readers who may not be as familiar with the myths and legends.  By centering the story on Angrboda instead of one of the more well-known gods, Gornichec frees herself to craft something truly remarkable that does not rely too heavily on readers coming in with an intimate knowledge of who these characters are, although it certainly helps.  The Witch’s Heart is ultimately an inventive, enjoyable read featuring an endlessly interesting main character and her family.  This is one I absolutely recommend.

The Witch’s Heart can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 6 days

Next on the List: This Golden Flame, by Emily Victoria

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