Falling in love with a god: A book review on The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

Many witch tales end with the witch burning at the stake. However, in The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec, this is how the story begins.

The Witch’s Heart is a novel written by Genevieve Gornichec. She is a writer from North East Ohio, USA with a degree in history. The novel is a reimagining of Norse Mythology and even though I know very little of Nordic Myths, this book was such an enjoyable read for me. I’m glad that I read this book because it provided me a fresh perspective on prominent Norse Gods such as Odin, Thor, and Loki because most of my exposure to these characters was from the Marvel universe.

This is a book that is definetely worth reading!

However, before I proceed to share my reaction, let me first share a brief summary of the book. This will contain spoilers, so please feel free to skip.

Summary

Angrboda is a gifted witch who is skilled in seid: the art of divining the future and traveling the World Tree. She teaches this skill to the Aesir (Odin and the other Gods living in Asgard) and the Vanir (Rival Gods to the Aesir). Because of her gift with seid, Odin wants Angrboda to provide him information about the future but she refuses. As punishment, he spears her heart and has her burnt. Angrboda manages to survive the burning and she flees from the Gods but she leaves her heart behind during her escape. She goes into hiding in Jarnvind, otherwise known as the Iron Wood Forest, which is situated at the end of the world in Jotunheim, the Land of Giants where she is discovered by Loki, who returns her heart to her.

After their initial encounter, Loki continues to visit her and despite her initial distrust of the trickster, she slowly falls in love with the him. They get married and their union brings about three children. Hel is the eldest and she is a little girl whose lower body parts are made out of dead, decaying flesh that grows along with her and Angrboda applies balms and salves to stop the flesh from rotting. Fenris is the middle child and he is a gigantic wolf that can communicate telepathically. Jormungand is the third and youngest child, he is a massive serpent but unlike his brother, his ability to communicate telepathically is limited.

Though her children with Loki are odd, they are still loved by their parents and by Skadi and Gerd- giantess cousins who are the only friends that Angrboda makes during her stay in Jarnvind. Skadi observes that Loki is an absent father and husband to her friend and this annoys her but despite this, Angrboda loves him and she is happy with her life in The Ironwood Forest. However, this all changes when her children are discovered by Sigyn.

Sigyn is a goddess living in Asgard and she is Loki’s second wife. Curious about her husband’s other family, she decides to follow him one day as he visits Angrboda. She is appalled when she sees the children and she calls them monsters. Enraged, Angrboda punishes Sigyn by showing her a vision of how her sons will die. In retaliation, Sigyn informs Odin about the three children.

Odin sends out a group of Gods to the Ironwood to capture the three children and Loki betrays Angrboda so that he can remain as a god in Asgard. Thor delivers a killing blow to Angrboda and as she lay dying, Odin forces her to share a vision of the future on how the world will end.

The gods leave her to die but Angrboda manages to survive with the help of Skadi who finds her in time. While recovering, Angrboda receives visions on the fate of her children. Hel was in Nifelheim, Fenrir was bound and Jormungand was tossed into the sea by the gods. Skadi confirms this and reassures her that despite their fate, all of her children are alive.

Angrboda then realizes that there is a way for her to save her children from Ragnarok but she must rediscover her past which she has forgotten. Because this is a journey that she must go alone, she says goodbye to Skadi and as a gesture of support, Skadi builds her a wagon to help her in her journey. Angrboda travels the nine worlds and she reconnects with a she-wolf who knew her from her past life. She regains her ability of seid after a fateful encounter with Freyja and using her seid, she reaches out to Hel but her daughter rejects her in anger.

As the story progresses, Angrboda receives news that Baldur is dead, marking the start of Ragnarok. The gods hold a funeral for Baldur but there is a spell that prevents it from proceeding. Odin reaches out to her for help and she agrees to lift the magic that is preventing the funeral from happening. After the funeral, she goes back to her cave in The Ironwood Forest and she finds Loki. He tells her the truth behind Baldur’s death but she rejects him. He leaves and Skadi arrives a few minutes later.

Determined to survive Ragnarok, Angrboda hones her magic to help her and her loved ones survive Ragnarok. Skadi becomes her lover during this period and they weather through the three years of winter together, along with the she-wolf. After the third winter, Angrboda visits Loki’s prison and strikes a deal with him- to convince Hel to seek her once the war starts so she could save her from Ragnarok. Loki agrees and she frees him from his bindings. In turn, this releases the bindings that have trapped her sons over the years, and they are briefly reunited before Loki and his sons depart for the war.

Upon learning that the war was starting, Skadi leaves for the battlefield along with the she-wolf. Though she isn’t part of the battle, Angrboda can observe the battle because of her gift, and she witnesses all of her loved ones die. Her vision ends with Surt, using his flames to kill everyone on the battlefield. These flames would spread and eventually burn the world.

Before the flames could reach her home, Angrboda sees Hel with Baldur. Hel is dying and Baldur is concerned about her welfare. Angrboda heals her daughter and notices that the two are in love with each other. Knowing that her protection spell could only work for two, she sacrifices herself so that both Baldur and Hel can survive Ragnarok.

Review

The Witch’s Heart is one of those rare books that I couldn’t put down after I started reading it. The story was so rich and captivating that within the first few pages, I was hooked. When I brought the book, I initially thought that perhaps, some parts of the book would be challenging to read because it was rooted in Norse Mythology which I have very little knowledge of. However, I was mistaken. The Witch’s Heart is so well written that the flow of events was easy for me to follow. Where I expected the characters to speak in old English, I encountered modern dialogue that was both witty and amusing. Even though you may encounter a few unique names while you are reading, the unfamiliarity will not throw you off because the back of the book has a list of who’s who and the novel focuses on only a handful of main characters.

The novel also has a cast of strong characters with their own complex personalities. What I particularly like is how the author has developed each of the main characters while remaining true to their roots in Norse Mythology.

In The Witch’s Heart, Loki is still a trickster. He still constantly gets himself and the other gods into trouble but he also gets them out of trouble. The author also gives him a vulnerable side by exposing his desire to be truly accepted by the Aesir and his love for Hel. Though Loki is not my favorite character in the story because of how poorly he treated Angrboda and their children, he isn’t someone that you can easily label as a villain when he finally reveals the truth behind why he did the things that he had to do.

In addition, The Witch’s Heart is brimming with strong female characters that are remarkable in their own way. You have Angrboda who is incredibly resilient and strong that even though she has experienced death at the hands of the gods multiple times, she does not falter in her decision to travel the nine worlds so she could regain her seid to save her children. There’s Skadi, a huntress, and businesswoman who breaks the mold of what women were supposed to be doing during those times. Lastly, there’s Sigyn. Though she initially comes off as weak, I consider her as a strong person for being able to forgive Angrboda when they meet again. Her love for Loki is also astounding because she doesn’t leave him even after he is imprisoned by the gods. Instead, she chooses to serve him and tries to alleviate his sufferings in her own little way.

What initially got me to buy the book was my curiosity about how the love story between Angrboda and Loki will develop. I wondered how the author was going to portray this. Whether this was going to be a case of a bad boy gone good. I was pleasantly surprised at how their tale progressed because of how it deviated from the stereotype of most love stories where one of the characters has a dysfunctional past. Unlike most love stories, the love story between Angrboda and Loki is a dysfunctional story between two broken people who tried to create their own happy ending and failed because of their own shortcomings. Though their love story has a tragic end, as a reader, I liked it because of its gritty realism and I found myself living for the moments of peace and happiness that are shared between the couple.

Lastly, it was interesting to learn how much research the author has done for the story. At the very back of the book, she suggests to you further articles to read on Norse Mythology which served as a foundation when she wrote the book. Which is great, The Witch’s Heart is so well written that it sparked an interest in me to learn more about Norse Mythology after I finished reading the book.

In summary, The Witch’s Heart is a story of love and loss which takes you into a deep journey of the ancient world of Norse Mythology. It is a timeless tale of a woman who actively tries to rebuild her own power despite everything that she has experienced and it also shows that the actions borne from a mother’s love are every bit as captivating as the heroic sagas that we read about the Gods. Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and I highly recommend it.

Quotable Quotes

“There is a difference between understanding and forgiveness. It’s possible to have one without the other.” ― Genevieve Gornichec, The Witch’s Heart

“The ending doesn’t matter. What matters is how we get there. To face what’s ahead with as much dignity as we can muster and make the most of the time we have left.” ― Genevieve Gornichec, The Witch’s Heart

“There is a reason that I will not be by your side during your torment. And that reason is you.” ― Genevieve Gornichec, The Witch’s Heart

“Guilt is a heavy thing, Mother Witch, she said. It’s best left behind if you want to move forward.” ― Genevieve Gornichec, The Witch’s Heart

“It doesn’t really matter where we came from, does it? We’re here now. We’re ourselves. What more can we be?” ― Genevieve Gornichec, The Witch’s Heart

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