I was really intrigued by the concept of The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec. Loki is one of my favourite characters from any mythology, and considering my world mythology obsession, that’s saying something. I love Norse myths; they stand out from other, more popular mythologies, particularly Greek, as being far more visceral. The gods and their antics in Norse myth are both highly relatable and incredibly strange and inexplicable. Loki is such an enigmatic character, I devour anything about him. However, you seldom hear much mention of Angrboda (for those of you who hate not knowing, it’s pronounced an-ger-bo-da). I actually had to go back to the myths and read up on her, because I had no recollection of her at all. If I ever paid attention to the name of the mother of Fenrir, Jormungandr, and Hel, it didn’t stick in my memory. 

This is particularly odd since I just finished writing a non-fiction book that draws heavily on mythology and uses the gods and goddesses of myth, including Loki, as avatars of the 12 personality archetypes. So, having done a ton of research on Loki only a year or so ago, I still didn’t recall a character called Angrboda. Her children, yes, but not her. This is often the way with the wives and mothers of the gods, particularly if they’re not gods themselves. So, I was super excited going into this to see how Gornichec would portray the character, her life, her relationship with Loki, and Loki himself.

I will try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible but there are some details that will give away elements of the plot, especially if you’re not already familiar with the mythology surrounding Loki and Ragnarok.

Who Is Angrboda In Norse Mythology?

Before I jump into my review, for those of you interested here’s a little bit about what is included in Norse myth about Angrboda. Angrboda, whose name means ‘Bringer of Sorrow’ or ‘Herald of Grief’ in Old Norse, is a figure shrouded in mystery in Norse mythology. She is often depicted as a giantess or a witch living in the Ironwood, a forest in Jotunheim, the land of the giants.

Her most notable role in the myths is as the mother of three of Loki’s children, each of whom plays a significant role in Norse eschatology. These children are Fenrir, the monstrous wolf; Jormungandr, the great serpent that encircles the world; and Hel, who presides over the eponymous realm of the dead. Their births and destinies are deeply intertwined with the events leading to Ragnarok, the end of the world in Norse myth.

The tales don’t delve much into Angrboda’s personal story or her relationship with Loki. Instead, her narrative mainly serves as a backdrop to the fates of her children. This lack of detail about her has led to various interpretations and creative explorations in modern retellings.

The relationship between Angrboda and Loki is intriguing yet not deeply explored in the surviving texts. Some sources imply a partnership based on mutual understanding, while others leave their relationship largely unexplored. This ambiguity has allowed for diverse interpretations in modern media and literature, including Genevieve Gornichec’s novel.

In the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, two primary sources of Norse mythology, Angrboda is primarily mentioned in the context of her offspring. Her character is somewhat overshadowed by the dramatic and often tragic stories of her children, especially in the foretelling of Ragnarok. Despite this she is an enigmatic character who embodies the untamed forces of nature and the shadow side of the cosmos. Her story, highlighting the paradoxical nature of existence, emphasises the cyclical nature of life, death, and rebirth, along with the precarious balance between order and chaos in the Norse cosmos. These aspects of her character reflect the inherent complexity and duality within Norse mythology, and are illuminated through her associations and the destinies of her offspring. 

Angrboda stands as a figure of power and mystery. Her significance is mainly derived from her role as the mother of three important beings who are central to the Norse mythological narrative. However, her own story remains largely untold in the original myths, making her a character ripe for exploration and reinterpretation in works like The Witch’s Heart.

A Review Of The Witch’s Heart

The Witch’s Heart begins after Angrboda is burned three times and then healed by the god Loki. Angrboda, a powerful witch, possesses a heart that holds ancient knowledge, but she has forgotten much of her past. This resurrection marks the beginning of her new life in the Ironwood, far from the realms of the gods.

Angrboda is initially wary of Loki, who is known for his trickery and unpredictability. However, as they spend time together, a bond begins to form between them. This period is marked by a mix of curiosity, cautious interaction, and the gradual build-up of trust. Loki, with his charismatic and enigmatic nature, intrigues Angrboda, while she, with her resilience and depth, captivates him.

As she settles into her new life in the Ironwood, Angrboda encounters Skadi, a skilled huntress and a giantess. Skadi finds Angrboda in the Ironwood, and they develop a friendship. Skadi’s role in the story is significant as she offers companionship to Angrboda during her isolation. This friendship marks Angrboda’s first significant interaction with another being after her ordeal with the Aesir gods.

Using her skills as a witch to trade spells and potions with others, through Skadi, Angrboda’s reputation as a powerful seeress and witch grows, attracting various beings who seek her expertise. This aspect of the story not only showcases Angrboda’s abilities and resourcefulness but also helps to establish her as a figure of some influence and respect within the realm of Norse mythology. It’s through this trade and interaction that Angrboda begins to re-establish her identity and place in the world after her resurrection by Loki. Her skills in crafting spells and potions become a means for her to connect with the world beyond her immediate surroundings, setting the stage for further developments in her story.

The Loki Factor

Angrboda’s relationship with Loki evolves from an initial mutual curiosity to a deeper, more complex connection. It’s through their shared experiences, conversations, and understanding of each other’s vulnerabilities that their relationship gradually transitions into a romantic one.

In the novel, Angrboda and Loki form a complex relationship. They live together in the Ironwood, a remote forest, where they raise their three unusual children: Hel, who is half dead and half alive; Fenrir, a wolf with great strength; and Jormungandr, a serpent. The narrative delves into the family dynamics and the challenges they face, particularly as their children are not ordinary beings. Yet Loki remains as you would expect him to be; frequently absent, fickle, and constantly in trouble.

Eventually Angrboda must face the reality of Loki’s nature and the consequences that it has for her and her children, all while evading the Aesir, and Odin in particular, who seeks to use her to gain knowledge of the future. It is Angrboda who foresees Ragnarok, the end of the world, and the role her children play in those events. 

Skardi And Other Secondary Characters

In The Witch’s Heart, secondary characters like Skadi significantly enrich the narrative and contribute to the novel’s exploration of Norse myths. Skadi, a skilled huntress and giantess, plays a crucial role in Angrboda’s story, particularly in terms of character development and plot progression.

Skadi’s interaction with Angrboda offers a contrast to Angrboda’s more isolated existence. Skadi’s character embodies the traditional Norse values of independence and strength, traits that are emblematic of the Norse gods and giants. Her friendship with Angrboda is significant, as it provides Angrboda with a connection to the outside world and a sense of belonging. This friendship also serves as a narrative tool to explore themes of loyalty, trust, and the complexities of relationships in the mythical world.

Moreover, Skadi’s presence in the story allows for a deeper exploration of the Norse mythological landscape. Through her, readers gain insight into the dynamics of the Jotunheim (the realm of the giants) and its inhabitants. Her character adds layers to the novel’s depiction of the Norse cosmos, showcasing the diversity and depth of its characters.

Additionally, Skadi’s interactions with other characters, including Loki, provide a multi-dimensional view of the relationships and tensions within Norse mythology. Her perspective offers a unique viewpoint on the actions and motivations of the primary characters, adding depth to the story’s exploration of fate, destiny, and the intricate web of relationships that define Norse myths.

Other significant secondary characters also contribute to the richness of the story and its exploration of Norse mythology. These characters add depth to the narrative, providing different perspectives and insights into the mythological world.

Hel, Fenrir, and Jormungandr, Angrboda’s children with Loki, play pivotal roles in the story. Each of these characters embodies different aspects of Norse mythology and destiny. Hel’s dual nature and role as the ruler of the underworld, Fenrir’s immense strength and fate during Ragnarok, and Jormungandr’s representation as the world serpent offer unique explorations of mythological themes. Their interactions with Angrboda highlight her maternal instincts and add emotional depth to the story.

As Loki’s wife, Sigyn‘s character adds complexity to the narrative, especially in the context of Loki’s relationship with Angrboda. Her presence in the story offers insights into the Norse gods’ interpersonal dynamics and the emotional entanglements within the pantheon.

The Aesir gods, particularly Odin, represent the authority and power structures of the Norse cosmos. Their interactions with Angrboda, ranging from hostility to attempts at manipulation, underline the tension between different realms and beings in Norse mythology. Odin’s quest for knowledge and control, especially regarding prophecies of Ragnarok, serves as a significant driving force in the plot.

At the same time, the Norns, as mythical beings who control destiny, are crucial to the Norse mythological setting. Their presence in the novel underscores the themes of fate and destiny, which are central to Norse mythology. The Norns’ interactions with Angrboda offer a philosophical dimension to the narrative, especially concerning the concepts of predestination and free will.

Incorporating these characters into the story allows Gornichec to explore various facets of Norse mythology, from the familial and personal to the grand and cosmic. The secondary characters serve not only to complement Angrboda’s narrative but also to deepen the reader’s understanding of the broader mythological world in which the story is set.

Fate, Destiny, And The Whims Of The Gods

The story offers a compelling and complex narrative that explores themes of fate, destiny, and the intricate relationships between the gods, giants, and other beings of Norse mythology. Angrboda’s character development is central to the novel, as she grapples with her forgotten past and the looming prophecy of Ragnarok. Her perspective offers a fresh take on the Norse myths, focusing on themes of love, loss, and resilience.

As the story unfolds, Angrboda must confront her past and make difficult choices about her future and that of her children. The novel blends myth, magic, and emotion to create a richly imaginative retelling of these ancient stories. Gornichec’s writing brings a new depth to the Norse mythological world, offering readers a different view of the legends through the eyes of a lesser-known yet pivotal character.

Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Five stars from me (and I do not give out five stars lightly!).

Who’s This Book For?

Anyone who is a fan of Norse mythology should find this book thoroughly enjoyable – I certainly did. It was a wonderfully refreshing break from the norm to have the story centred around a lesser known character, and to see the gods from the perspective of an outsider, rather than one of their own. 

While the tone of the prose and the writing style are quite traditional, which I felt was appropriate given the tale at hand, it is infused with modern perspective. That said, the book is accessible to both newcomers and seasoned enthusiasts of Norse mythology. Whether you’re well-versed in the tales of the Aesir and the Vanir or just beginning your journey into Norse myths, Gornichec’s storytelling is engaging and inviting.

There are subtle notes of modern feminism – but not so much that it’s intrusive, annoying, or untrue to the historical context of the characters. There’s a note of modern discord on the complexities of gender identity and sexuality, with Loki’s shapeshifting abilities at one point transforming him into a woman who gives birth to a foal, and Angrboda having a very gender neutral approach to her feelings for the people she loves throughout her life. One of the reasons I love Loki so much is because he was one of the first encounters I had, as a child, with a character that felt more like a representation of me; not straight, not gay, but somewhere in the middle, and nobody judged him for that.

That is a rarity for any character, even in today’s ‘woke’ culture, as the majority of LGBTQ+ representation tends to focus on every letter other than the B. Biphobia is a real thing, yet one most people never notice because it doesn’t occur to them to think about it. Which, of course, is part of the problem!

The Witch’s Heart offers a fresh take on well-known characters while maintaining the integrity of the mythological setting. For readers who appreciate character-driven narratives that delve into the complexities of relationships and identity, this is a compelling choice. Its blend of traditional Norse mythology with modern sensibilities makes it a novel that transcends its genre, appealing to a wide range of readers, including those interested in fantasy, historical fiction, and explorations of gender and identity.

Comparative Analysis: The Witch’s Heart Compared To Other Norse Mythology Retellings

The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec stands out in the genre of Norse mythology retellings, offering a unique perspective through the character of Angrboda. To provide a comparative analysis, it’s useful to consider other notable works in this genre, such as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and Joanne Harris’s The Gospel of Loki.

Gornichec’s novel differs significantly from Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. While Gaiman presents a more traditional recounting of the Norse myths, focusing broadly on various gods and their adventures, Gornichec narrows her focus, centering the narrative around Angrboda and offering a deeper dive into her life and relationships. This approach allows for a more intimate and character-driven story, compared to Gaiman’s collection of tales that cover a wider range of characters and events. 

In a sense, what Gaiman presents isn’t fiction; he sticks closely to the source material to present what exists in the body of Norse mythology left to us. Gornichec, on the other hand, has very much written a work of fiction, although it is securely based in the same source material.

Another point of comparison can be found in Joanne Harris’s The Gospel of Loki, which, similar to The Witch’s Heart, offers a unique perspective on a well-known character from Norse mythology. Harris’s book is written from Loki’s point of view, providing a different angle on the Norse myths. Both Gornichec and Harris humanise their central characters, giving depth and complexity to figures that are often simplified in traditional mythologies.

Gornichec’s inclusion of contemporary themes like gender identity and feminism sets her work apart. While many Norse mythology retellings stick closely to traditional themes of heroism, honour, and destiny, The Witch’s Heart weaves in modern sensibilities and issues, making it more relatable to contemporary readers.

Gaiman’s work is renowned for its accessibility, appealing to both newcomers and aficionados of Norse mythology. Gornichec’s novel, while potentially more niche due to its focus on a lesser-known character, also manages to be accessible, weaving a narrative that can be enjoyed regardless of the reader’s prior knowledge of Norse myths.

So, while each of these works contributes uniquely to the retelling of Norse mythology, The Witch’s Heart distinguishes itself through its focus on a lesser-known character, its intimate narrative style, and the incorporation of contemporary themes. This makes it a significant and refreshing addition to the genre, particularly for readers seeking a new perspective on these ancient tales.