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Posted on 20 Jun 2024 in Fiction, SFF |

SHARON EMMERICHS Shield Maiden. Reviewed by Amelia Dudley

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Sharon Emmerichs gives the legend of Beowulf a makeover from the point of view of Beowulf’s niece. And yes, there is a dragon.

Fryda, niece of the legendary King Beowulf, has always dreamed of becoming a warrior herself, despite her father’s refusal to allow her to train. When a youthful attempt to prove herself goes disastrously wrong and her left hand is broken beyond repair, that dream is snatched away. Forced to learn the basics of self-defence in secret for her own protection, Fryda is frightened to discover a well of unexpected rage and power within her. An ancient dragon trapped in a cursed sleep feels this rage too, and every time Fryda’s power surfaces, the dragon draws closer to waking.

As people gather to celebrate Beowulf’s 50-year reign, Fryda learns of a threat to herself and her entire clan. But even with her new power, she may not be able to prevent it.

The novel is mostly written from Fryda’s perspective, but other characters have a viewpoint chapter here and there. They are all distinct from each other in how they look at the world, and Beowulf’s observations of other characters are particularly enjoyable:

She was what he imagined a daughter would be like, had he ever had children of his own. He never regretted his lack of progeny, except when he saw her. And Weohstan, the insufferable iceberg, had such a treasure and neglected her in favour of the dead.

After a million different translations of the epic poem, it’s nice to see a portrayal of Beowulf not only as a mighty hero who slays monsters, but also as a person who cares about his family. He can be other things, too, including inclined to exaggerate.

It’s hilarious to have Fryda and her twin brother Wiglaf commenting on how the legends of good old Uncle Beowulf keep getting embellished every year:

‘The king is probably laughing at the story of how he fought Grendel’s mother … Have you heard the latest version? They have him fighting for a full day. In a cave. Underwater.’

Another refreshing thing about Shield Maiden is that the forbidden love in the story is emotionally rich enough to give the sense that the two characters would have fallen in love even without the extra thrill of the taboo. The two lovebirds actually have important things in common – hallelujah.

According to the author on her Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread, the unnamed slave who stole a goblet and woke the dragon in the original Beowulf poem was initially going to be the main character, until Fryda took over during the writing. Emmerichs said that she had always had questions about the poem, so she ‘wrote a book that answered these questions’. 

Fryda is a very engaging main character. Her innocence and idealism, bordering on naivety, only add to her depth – all the more so because she never entirely loses these traits, despite everything the story throws at her. Her mix of courage and vulnerability makes her a captivating heroine as she proves that swinging a sword around is by no means the only way to be brave. She fights on despite her disability, and the way people treat her because of it, every single day.

No character is perfect, either. Even the role models Fryda has always looked up to have flaws, and part of her journey is coming to terms with that.

The ancient world Emmerichs conjures is very believable and diverse, as it should be. Although relatively little is known of Beowulf’s people, the Geats of what is now southern Sweden, the warrior culture shown fits the story well. Most of the character names are taken from Old English and are very apt. There is also a pronunciation guide at the back of the book (that I didn’t notice until I finished the story, so you’re welcome).

Shield Maiden is a fun new take on an ancient story that has been rewritten many times (see, for example, Maria Dahvana Headley’s 2021 translation of the original Beowulf). It can be enjoyed without being an enthusiast of Old English literature and, without spoiling anything too much, lovers of dragons will also appreciate this story.

Sharon Emmerichs Shield Maiden Head of Zeus 2023 PB 416pp $32.99

Amelia Dudley has degrees in plant biology. But despite spending a lot of time in the garden, occasionally her plants still die.

You can buy Shield Maiden from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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