By Richard Denning
Reviewed by Karen Andreas
Shield Maiden is simply a terrific read. Written by Richard Denning for young readers, there is plenty to intrigue and draw in the older reader as well.
The opening premise of the story is as old as time: a daughter, Anna, yearns to be a warrior woman in an Anglo Saxon community, against all convention and expressly against the expectations of her father. The time (around 600 AD) and location make this story fresh, engaging, and, as the story unfolds, unexpected. Memorable characters are integral to this story: Anna’s circle of young friends; a tinker, Raedann who may be more than he seems; Gurthrunn the dweorg (dwarf) who holds the key to the core mystery and adventure of this book.
While exploring a ruined Roman villa, Anna and her friends find a gold horn. Passed from hand to hand, no one can blow sound out of the horn until it comes to Anna. The horn responds to her and thus she is ‘chosen’ by the instrument whose trill opens the doors between worlds and unleashes the struggle between the gods in Anna’s village and its environs. The horn recognizes Anna’s strength and potential for leadership, her gender notwithstanding.
Anna’s young friends each bring their own talents to this adventure: her younger brother Lar is more interested in trade than in war; 10-year-old Wilburh is a scholar of spells; Hild is Wilburh’s twin sister; and Ellette, a mischievous nine-year-old with a bold heart. Anna’s leadership is simply not possible without the skills of these friends and the guidance of the dweorg and tinker. As they battle against monsters and their own village, ensorcelled against them, Denning neatly portrays the realities of war during this age by having his protagonists battle against hell hounds, dark elves, and ravens, with minimal gore but maximum effect.
Here is a great introduction to the gods, goddesses and mythology of the Anglo Saxon world, recounted as living legends very real to the children and their families. Explained in easy terms are the games, wars and struggles between Woden and his denizens. The horn, it turns out, is one of several treasures of the gods, stolen and secreted away between worlds. Gurdrunn, as well as Kendra, the corrupted Valkyrie under the sway of the evil Loki, move between the worlds searching out the treasures. Horrifyingly enough, Kendra turns the adults of the village against the children who must rely on their own wits; Anna must learn to trust her intuition and discover her courage. Should the treasures fall into Loki’s hands, disaster will befall Yggdrasil, the nine worlds of the Anglo Saxon universe. This mythic struggle continues beyond this first volume into several sequels.
Black and white drawings accompany the story, and they are quite well done. Here the reader can see how Anglo Saxons dressed and fantastical portrayals of the battles, the dwarf, the dark elves, Valkyries. Denning provides a final chapter, 'The World of Shield Maiden', with some history appropriate to young readers to add to this story so rich in detail. Even better, he provides a Runic alphabet.
How Anna and her company succeed make for a page turning read. I highly recommend this for young, aspiring history buffs – as well as for the adults in their lives.
The author has graciously offered three paperback copies of Shield Maiden for giveaway--to anywhere in the world! To get your name in the draw, comment below or at our matching Facebook thread!