A- #BookReview: Black Shield Maiden by Willow Smith and Jess Hendel

A- #BookReview: Black Shield Maiden by Willow Smith and Jess HendelBlack Shield Maiden by Willow Smith, Jess Hendel
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 480
Published by Del Rey on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

From WILLOW and co-writer Jess Hendel comes a powerful and groundbreaking historical epic about an African warrior in the world of the Vikings.
Lore, legend, and history tell us of the Vikings: of warrior-kings on epic journeys of conquest and plunder. But the stories we know are not the only stories to tell. There is another story, one that has been lost to the mists of time: the saga of the dark queen.
That saga begins with Yafeu, a defiant yet fiercely compassionate young warrior who is stolen from her home in the flourishing Ghanaian Empire and taken as a slave to a distant kingdom in the North. There she is thrust into a strange, cold world of savage shield maidens, tyrannical rulers, and mysterious gods.
And there she also finds something unexpected: a kindred spirit. She comes to serve Freydis, a shy princess who couldn’t be more different than the confident and self-possessed Yafeu.
But they both want the same thing: to forge their own fate. Yafeu inspires Freydis to dream of a future greater than the one that the king and queen have forced upon her. And with the princess at her side, Yafeu learns to navigate this new world and grows increasingly determined to become one of the legendary shield maidens.
For Yafeu may have lost her home, but she still knows who she is, and she’s not afraid to be the flame that burns a city to the ground so a new world can rise from the ashes. She will alter the course of history—and become the revolutionary heroine of her own myth.

My Review:

Through a series of unfortunate events that can, all too easily be laid at her own feet due to an excess of pride and an inability to keep her own temper, a young black woman is torn from her home village, enslaved, and dragged across the desert to the port city where she will be sold into who knows what fate.

Although at least part of that fate can be guessed from the lecherous expression on the face of the man offering gold for the purchase of her body.

That fate is interrupted by a sword – a sword wielded by a Viking warrior leading a raid on the coastal cities of North Africa. A female Viking warrior.

Alvtir saved Yafeu’s life because she could. Yafeu followed Alvtir back to her ship because Alvtir represents so much of what Yafeu wants to be. A warrior. A leader. A person who seems to be in charge of their own destiny in spite of the fact that females are supposed to be none of those things.

Yafeu believes that following Alvtir will get her what she has been searching for most of her life. The training to be a warrior in a place where she will be permitted if not encouraged to be the leader she was meant to be.

But Yafeu and the warriors to whom she has attached her hope and her future share neither a language nor even a common frame of reference or view of the world and the way it works. The desert that Yafeu called home is an entirely different world from the frozen fjords to which Alvtir and her Vikings are bound to return.

Once they make landfall in Skíringssal, Yafeu learns that she has merely traded one form of slavery for another, and that her hopes of training and respect were all in vain. But Alvtir sees that she may have found a hope for her own people – if that hope can be tempered and forged into a weapon.

So she waits and watches as Yafeu adjusts to her new life, learns the language and ways of a people not her own, and constantly searches for a way to forge a new path. A path that leads through the friendship of a disregarded princess to, finally and at long last, the coveted place among Alvtir’s shield maidens.

Just as the hope that these three women have forged together gets put to the torch of revolt and revolution.

Escape Rating A-: I came to this book by an odd route. I watched a playthrough of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla where the main character, Eivor, was played as female. (It’s possible to play the character as either gender and does not change the story – but it does change the visuals a LOT) I was riveted by the game even as a spectator, so when I saw the blurb for this book and realized that most of it took place in the same culture at the same time, I was hooked.

Even though the point of view character for Black Shield Maiden is Yafeu, Alvtir’s story bore more than enough resemblance to Eivor to keep me on the edge of my seat the whole way through.

Which I needed at the beginning, because the story does get off to a bit of a slow start. A start that reminded me of an entirely different story. If Alvtir is Eivor, then Yafeu is Ejii Ugabe, the titular Shadow Speaker of the first book in Nnedi Okorafor’s Desert Magician duology. Yafeu and Ejii have very similar story arcs, that they are both daughters in cultures that denigrate women, that both are feared and rejected by their home villages for powers and personalities that would be respected if they were male, and both have large and important destinies laid before them that can only be fulfilled if they come into their power by traveling far beyond their local horizon.

The story in Black Shield Maiden, while it is Yafeu’s story and told mostly from her perspective, also wraps itself around the fate of two other women; the warrior Alvtir and the Princess Freydis, who is also Alvtir’s niece.

Just as Yafeu has the dream of becoming a warrior and of finding the father who went on his own travels years before and never returned, Alvtir and Freydis have dreams of their own. Freydis’ dreams are initially small, she dreams of the fate that will be hers, marriage to an influential man of her father’s choosing and a home of her own. Yafeu’s introduction into Freydis’ life sets her on an entirely different course.

While this is Yafeu’s story – and we learn the place and the people and the culture because we learn it through her – Alvtir is the character upon whom the story pivots. Her people are at a crossroads in history, the fork in history’s road where Christianity swept all other religions before it and away. Alvtir sees another path for her people, a path that she hopes will lead to the preservation of their religion and their way of life, knowing that the only way to step on that path is to betray her brother, the king to whom she has sworn all her oaths.

The three women together have the opportunity to take new paths and forge new alliances, even knowing that the price will be that one of them will not live to see the future they bring about.

Obviously, I got caught up in this story, if not quite from the very beginning then certainly from the moment that Alvtir rescues Yafeu. And I’m glad I did even if I was up until 2 AM finishing it. At the end, I was caught by the idea that even though this is not a fictionalization of a real piece of history, it did fall just inside the line of plausibility. The Vikings who went ‘a-viking’ certainly traveled far and wide (including all the way to North America) both as raiders and as traders. Recently discovered DNA evidence proves that there WERE female Viking warriors.

In the end, I was reminded of Ash, A Secret History by Mary Gentle, the story of a female warrior in 15th century France that was not historical but was written as though it were the ‘secret history’ the title claimed it was. It was a story that, by the time it was finished, the reader WANTED to have been true.

Black Shield Maiden, especially in its rousing and hopeful ending, felt the same.