In a cave in a wood lives a witch. Not just any witch; this is Angrboda, whose name appears only briefly in the oldest tales from Norse mythology. She’s the mother of three children fathered by Loki: Fenrir, the giant wolf; Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent; and Hel, who will rule over the land of the dead. All three of them have roles to play when the inevitable end of the world, Ragnarok, comes—and it’s not that far away, no matter how badly Angrboda wants to ignore her powers, the god who desires them, and the dire prophecy she would really rather not know.
In The Witch’s Heart, Genevieve Gornichec invents a life for this previously unsung heroine, shaping her mysterious history, her love affair with the notorious trickster, and her relationships with her dramatically different children. It’s a life on the edges of epics; Angrboda hears about more of the gods’ hijinks than she witnesses, and she prefers it that way. She has good reason to avoid Asgard.
The Witch’s Heart begins at a rough point in Angrboda’s very long existence. She had a life before the story picks up, but she doesn’t remember much of it. What she remembers centers her recent past in ugly betrayal. She taught Odin seid, a kind of prophetic magic, but refused to give him access to its deepest secrets. In retaliation, he burned her at the stake not once, but thrice. Escaping, she left behind her heart, which Loki picks up and returns to her.
As far as Norse gods—or giants turned gods—go, Loki enjoyed a decent amount of notoriety even before the Marvel gods had the wisdom to cast Tom Hiddleston to play the sly, clever sometimes-villain. And while Gornichec’s Loki may be blond, it’s still virtually impossible to not hear his dialogue in Hiddleston’s voice. (His first line: “You’re a difficult woman to find.” Tell me you didn’t hear Hiddleston. I wasn’t even trying.)
But this Loki is moody and bored and, disappointingly, rather lacking in charisma. He decides to be friends with Angrboda and appears, irregularly, at her her cave-home on the border of Jotunheim. He brings stories from Asgard, while Angrboda’s other visitor, the huntress Skadi, offers both better company and a more practical kind of assistance as she takes Angrboda’s potions into the world and brings necessities back.
Eventually Loki shows up with his mouth sewn shut, needing Angrboda’s help. Of course, when he needs to stay there to recover, there is only one bed. Their banter moves slowly but surely into relationship territory, but doesn’t truly kindle until after Loki comes to her after one of his more famous escapades (the one involving a horse). Before long they’re married, and children come next—after a grating sequence where Angrboda gets annoyed by Loki mistaking her pregnancy for weight gain. It’s almost sitcom-like: she curls her lip, he raises his hands in surrender, she snaps, he’s knocked speechless by the realization, a single drop of sweat forming on his forehead. The story Gornichec creates for Angrboda is meaningful, pensive, and powerful, but at times her prose doesn’t quite match up. Her language is simple and straightforward in a way that keeps the narrative in the realm of larger-than-life stories—but it can also leave her characters’ inner lives somewhat opaque.
The tale deepens as it goes on; a dramatic and painful crisis comes at the end of Part I (which is half the book) and the witch has no real choice but to change her life. Her intimate existence ruined, she steps reluctantly back into the world, wandering for a time (with an excellent companion) before facing head-on the prophesied end of the world.
Ragnarok looms over this story: What is fated? What can we control? What can be avoided? There are always loopholes in prophecies, as any Buffy fan knows. As Angrboda makes her way toward the end, there are plenty of scenes to delight fans already familiar with the stories Gornichec is working from—Loki’s torment, the Midgard Serpent rising from the sea, a sweeping final battle—as well as a welcome change to the love life of a giantess-turned-goddess known for her dissatisfaction with her accidentally chosen husband. (You pick a man by just his feet and see how you do.)
The Witch’s Heart is a slow build to a woman’s embrace of her power. Gornichec knows her material (a neat appendix details the characters and what is told about them in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda), and knows her heroine. She makes a patient argument that love and motherhood are adventures equal to any god’s shenanigans, and always finds a way to bring her female characters to a truce; more often than not, it’s the whims and foibles of met that set them at odds with each other anyway. Still, it never feels like the reader is brought all the way in to Angrboda’s story, but left just shy of its depths, like the witch hovering above the deep well of her power.
The Witch’s Heart is available from Ace Books.