Review: The Witches Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

‘There is a difference between understanding and forgiveness. It’s possible to have one without the other’

So as a lot of you may have guessed by now, I’m a retellings kinda gal. Basically that kid in school who was slightly too much into Ancient Egypt. Yeah you remember the one in your class. So it was only a matter of time before I got to this one.

When a banished witch falls in love with the legendary trickster Loki, she risks the wrath of the gods in this moving, subversive debut novel that reimagines Norse mythology.

Angrboda’s story begins where most witches’ tales end: with a burning. A punishment from Odin for refusing to provide him with knowledge of the future, the fire leaves Angrboda injured and powerless, and she flees into the farthest reaches of a remote forest. There she is found by a man who reveals himself to be Loki, and her initial distrust of him transforms into a deep and abiding love.

Their union produces three unusual children, each with a secret destiny, who Angrboda is keen to raise at the edge of the world, safely hidden from Odin’s all-seeing eye. But as Angrboda slowly recovers her prophetic powers, she learns that her blissful life—and possibly all of existence—is in danger.

With help from the fierce huntress Skadi, with whom she shares a growing bond, Angrboda must choose whether she’ll accept the fate that she’s foreseen for her beloved family…or rise to remake their future. From the most ancient of tales this novel forges a story of love, loss, and hope for the modern age.

This was another ‘on a whim’ read that I picked up on both my cousin’s recommendation and started reading for just being in the mood. Something I’ve seen this book compared to is Madeline Miller’s Circe. Same reviews have also criticised for the book “cashing in” on that. Which is a bit nonsensical since a publishing trend is what it is and also, that’s a huge compliment in my opinion. And if like me you’ve found your mood turning toward retellings of barely mentioned characters, Learwife being my first example, it will help confirm if this book might be for you!

We start the story as Angrboda is picking herself from the very ashes she was burned in, running to the Iron Wood for sanctuary. Right away she runs into a wandering Loki as he hands her back the heart the Gods he is a part of cut from her chest. So from the get go, this is distinctly Angrboda (Boda for short) telling her own story. Her semi forgetful state when she wakes up in the ashes and walks to the wood lead to her renaming herself from the name ‘Gullveig’ to Angrboda.

This is a character focused story so I’ll mostly be talking that alongside the writing for this review. Overall both were absolutely excellent! I really enjoyed Boda’s narration for nearly all the story. It really focused the story and both her and her children. The focus on Loki was something I was worried about since sometimes it’s unavoidable to not focus on the male that the character is linked to. Think The Song of Achilles or the previously mentioned Learwife. But this is very much her story, and her relationship with Loki does have a lot of time on page. Alongside it is a lot of her own development as she tries to move on from her previous identity and reestablish herself again as a witch and a mother.

Now I’m your typical childless millennial, but noone can tell me this isn’t a novel about motherhood. If you look up Angrboda (or Angrboða) she is generally classed as ‘the mother of monsters’. The book does naturally lead with that age old ‘who really is the monster’ question but either just because this is a Norse story at it’s roots, Boda isn’t shying from the fact she is giving birth to half dead girls, wolves and snakes. Her children are her joy. She at one point doesn’t focus on Loki and his extended absences for just caring for Hel and Fenris. We also get no love for either the Aesir or the Vanir in this book. They killed Boda three times but never managed to keep her dead. But this isn’t a vengeance tale. Her want to just be left with her children and love for Skadi and Loki alike is so deep it lends the book even heavier emotions at time. Even her forgiveness of Loki (no spoilers but if you know Norse epics then you know this outcome) is so reminiscent of someone who has come so far in her journey into her trauma.

And that’s something this book really interrogates really well for me, trauma. The way Boda keeps herself and her children sheltered away in the woods far from the reaches of the Gods, her previous family if you like, is not unlike many stories I know of. Loki is responsible for another heaping of it, even her children. But the way Boda takes that journey into herself and manages to process everything she is and has is very real to me. The writing is excellent and only impressed me more as I read.

My main issue with the book was the light handling of Loki and Skadi. So this does nearly contradict what it says earlier but something that gives people so much fondness for Loki alone is the fluidity of him. Gender, sexuality even physical form don’t contain him historically, he is such a great example of the more open parts of myth. The book does some very surface level version of this but does keep Loki being able to give birth. Skadi at the same time needed just that bit more exploring for me but the end of the book did far better to give Boda enough distance to see and tell the reader of both sides of her.

Overall, this was so wonderful. It’s a slower more thoughtful retelling of anything Norse I’ve read so far. I don’t know if she is mentioned in even Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythlogy but a reread is overdue anyway so I will be sure to note in a review if Boda is. Do recommend me your retellings in the same vein, tell me if you read it too. In the meantime, appreciate this excellent fan art I found (artist credit below). Thanks for checking in folks! Happy reading!

Credit: rnlaing.com

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