In a land where people live in fear of mountain trolls, where caves and sinkholes are home to the mysterious dwarves, and the gods can and do meddle in the affairs of mortals, two shieldmaidens from rival kingdoms must find a way to bring peace to a troubled land. One one side, Jarl Sigrid’s father was stolen from her by assassins; on the other, Elyn’s life was upended when raiders killed her father and brother, and raped her and her mother, leaving her to the mercy of her uncle. When the two women face one another on the battlefield, both of them feel the pull between them. It’s something more than hatred for an enemy; it’s something deeper than attraction. And it’s what has Sigrid seeking Elyn out during the next battle.
Whether it was the work of Loki, of dwarves, or simply ill luck, the two shieldmaidens end up trapped in a fissure in the ground and have a moment to talk, and in talking realize that they’re being set up. Someone is pitting the two kingdoms against one another, but why? Well, that’s easily solved. When two kingdoms go to war, wasting the lives of brave warriors, someone is bound to take advantage of the chaos. The who is a more difficult question to answer, and will have Sigrid and Elyn facing off against kings, Jarls, uncles, and assassins. They can trust no one but each other.
Taking place in 649 C.E., this historical fiction, first in the Tales from Norvegr series, combines action, adventure, a murder mystery, and a love story into a very well researched book. The author displays a keen understanding of the era and its people, showing off the food, the clothing, the legal systems — which mostly revolve around honor, sacrifice, and loyalty — as well as an understanding for how battles would be fought, how diplomacy would work, and how the land shaped much of the politics of the time. Even the family dynamics feel genuine. For example, there is Sigrid and her close bond with her brother. As twins, they have shared almost everything in life; they trust one another, support one another, and were so intertwined that their father left them both to rule together when he died. Sigrid has no inclination to marry, not just because she loves women, but because any husband she took would expect to take her place beside her brother. A husband might become a rival for her brother, knowing he would never come first, that his children would never come first. And her mother, while she wishes it were otherwise, does nothing to argue the point. (Mostly because arguing with Sigrid is like arguing with a rock. Have fun, and when you get tired, you can stop.)
As a Jarl, as a shieldmaiden, Sigrid wears her confidence like armor. She has no fear of confrontations, or pain or death. If one of her people needed something, she would do her best to get it for them; if they were hungry, she would have them fed. If they had no roof to shelter beneath, she would invite them to her hall. But she’s also a product of her time, with a thrall (a slave) of her own, her bedmate, Sveina, who has belonged to her for most of her life. A bedmate who has no right to refuse and, as we see, Sveina is not the only one of her kind. Even if she were not willing (as many aren’t), she would have no right to refuse. When Sigrid learns of this, she is sickened. Horrified at what she’s done, at the pain she’s caused, and frees Sveina so that she can be happy, find someone she loves, and live her own life.
It makes her more cautious in her courting of Elyn, who has lived beneath her uncle’s rule for so long her shoulders are all but stooped with his crudely trained obedience. Elyn is not, however, broken. She is stubborn, quiet, graceful in the way she slips aside from his anger, trying to find peace if not acceptance. After all, when she was being raped by a raiding party, it is her uncle who saved her, who took her in when her father and mother were dead. She owes him so much, and had he but been kind, she would have been loyal to the end. Instead, Elyn must learn to step away, to accept that nothing she gives will be enough for her uncle … but it might be enough for someone else.
The relationship between the two women is fast, and based on mutual appreciation of one another’s fighting skill, intelligence, passion, and character. And yes, appearance. And have to say, for me, the romance is not the strongest part of the book. The author put so much into the research that the growing bond between Elyn and Sigrid felt, at times, rushed and taken for granted. And with so much time spent with the two of them trying to unravel the knot of who was a spy, who wasn’t, and the politics of the situation, not much time was left to build up the tension between the two of them.
Even so, it’s nice to see a historical romance set so far back, and written with such attention to detail. If you’re interested in vikings, strong women, and clever, political intrigue, give this book a try!
Trigger warning: Elyn is raped as a child. The scene is brief and not gratuitous (though I wonder at the need for it). There are mentions of enslaved thralls being raped by their owners, and multiple scenes of people dying or being killed.