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Why You Need to Read: “The Witch’s Heart”

The Witch’s Heart: A Novel

By: Genevieve Gornichec

Published: February 9, 2021

Genre: Folklore, Fantasy, Mythology, Retellings

            Loki still came to bother her at his leisure. She was fine with that, as she enjoyed his company, though she did find him to be a little much at times. Peace and quiet were the only companions she could rely on; Loki was interested in neither peace “nor” quiet, but then again, he didn’t seem to be all that reliable himself, and one of his favorite pastimes was complaining about how uninteresting she’d become since leaving her Gullveig roots behind, (Part I).

            Myths are not only narratives about the creation of the world involving gods and goddesses, heroes, etc., but also provide explanations of customs which are still practiced millennia from the time and the place they originated from. As the stories are passed down amongst posterity, certain aspects within the narratives are altered for the audience. However, main components of each tale remain constant, which makes these tales retellings. Then again, who is to say the retellings could NOT have happened in that variant? Genevieve Gornichec follows in the footsteps of both Neil Gaiman and Madeline Miller for her debut novel, The Witch’s Heart

            The protagonist is the witch who goes by the name, Gullveig, until Odin—the ruler of the Norse gods—burned her at a pyre 3 times for refusing to teach him “seid”—or prophetic magic. Gullveig does manage to escape, but she leaves her heart behind. After she finds a place of refuge, Gullveig learns Loki—the Trickster—had followed her in order to return her heart to her. Suffering from amnesia due to the trauma of being burned alive and to hide from Odin, she decides to go by the name, Angrboda, to live in Ironwood—the forest bordering Jotunheim, the land of the giants, and to stop practicing magic. As she starts to settle in her exile, Angrboda meets Skadi—a giantess and a huntress—with whom she strikes up a friendship. Meanwhile, Angrboda’s relationship with Loki develops into a long-term romance which results in 3 children—Hel, Fenrir and Jormungand—and where they cohabit as wife and husband in all but name. Unfortunately for Angrboda, the life she spent so many years building for herself, and her children is about to be upended due to Loki’s mischief and Odin’s obsession with knowledge and prophecy. As Angrboda’s prophetic magic returns to her, she realizes her children are in danger. But, before she can act, Odin finds her and sets off the events which will lead to Ragnarök. Angrboda is able to heal thanks to Loki’s love and Skadi’s friendship; but, when Odin threatens her again, Angrboda reclaims her magic and her strength in order to protect her children.  

            The plot of this novel focuses on Angrboda—her life, her magic, her interaction with the gods, and her family—and her role in what will be known as Ragnarök, or the end-of-the-world. Angrboda is a witch with prophetic powers who is suffering from amnesia and P.T.S.D. from the trauma Odin inflicted upon her. However, Angrboda begins to let her guard down, which leads to her foreseeing what’s to come. What she sees terrifies her because everyone she cares about is foreseen to die, unless Angrboda finds a way to change fate. The subplot in this novel is the knowledge and the cost of knowing the future. Odin seeks it, Angrboda tries to ignore it, but Loki is the one who states prophecies neither can be stopped nor changed. Anyone who is familiar with Norse mythology might want to pay attention to how Loki’s actions influence the prophecies. The subplot is essential to the plot, and both develop at an appropriate rate.

            The narrative is in the present and is told in 3rd person limited from Angrboda’s point-of-view. That being said, remember Angrboda is a witch. Not only does she have visions of the future, but also she has visions of what is happening in distant locations. Angrboda has visions of what is happening in Asgard, Niflheim, Yggdrasil, etc., in the present; this is something Angrboda is able to do in order to gather information, and it makes her a reliable narrator. The prose reflects Angrboda’s stream-of-consciousness, which is continuous. Following the last years of the Norse gods’ rule from a bystander’s P.O.V. adds to the tragedy of the event. The narrative can be followed easily. 

            The style Genevieve Gornichec uses for The Witch’s Heart isn’t anything new, but it hasn’t been this well done since Madeline Miller’s Circe. And yes, this follows Norse mythology, which is more familiar to us than we want to admit. And, it’s because of Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan, (to some extent—the M.C.U.), and other authors and writers who retell these myths in a way so readers can recognize them. Mythological retellings are similar to fractured fairy tales in which certain elements of a narrative must be included within the story, so the audience knows which tale is being told (i.e. the glass slipper from Cinderella). There are enough stories within this novel which readers will become familiar with Norse myths. The mood in this novel is foreboding. Angrboda’s visions of the future is one that haunts her, her family, Asgard, the readers, etc., but she can’t stop it from happening. The tone in this novel is hope, which sounds cliché, but it’s valid. While many of the characters in this novel accept the coming of Ragnarök, Angrboda searches for a way to protect a few of them from dying in the war and its aftermath. The question is, who will survive? How? Why?

            The appeal for The Witch’s Heart have been immensely positive. Named one of “the Best (Fantasy) Books of the Year” amongst numerous critics and authors, over 14,000 readers have read and reviewed this book on Goodreads, with 77% of them giving the novel 4- and 5-star ratings. This book should be read by fans of mythology retellings (i.e. Circe, American Gods, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Six Crimson Cranes), historical fantasy (i.e. The Poppy War, The Bear and the Nightingale, Black Sun), and/or anything related to Norse myths (i.e. The Shadow of the Gods, Northern Wrath). Participants of #Norsevember will be glad to know they can add this book to their reading list. Another thing to mention is the violence of Ragnarök is NOT glossed over, which is essential to both the narrative and the presentation.

            The Witch’s Heart is a strong debut novel about gods, love, prophecy, and the end-of-the-world. Fans of mythological retellings and Norse mythology need to read this book. A lot more happens in this novel besides the tragic love between a witch and a trickster. Read this book and wait for the author to release her next one.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

I received an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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