Today’s review is about SHIELD MAIDEN by Sharon Emmerichs. It’s a retelling of the epic poem Beowulf during his 50th year of reign from the point of view of Fryda, his niece. This story has excellent disability representation and immerses the reader in 10th century Geatland (modern Sweden) culture.
Author: Sharon Emmerichs
Age Category: New Adult
Publish Date: October 3, 2023
Print Length: 416
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Both epic and intimate, Sharon Emmerichs’s extraordinary debut novel reimagines Beowulf from the perspective of a young woman reclaiming her power.
All her life, Fryda has longed to be a shield maiden, an honor reserved for Geatland’s mightiest warriors. When a childhood accident leaves her tragically injured and unfit for the battlefield, her dreams are dashed–or so she thinks. But a strange, unfathomable power is awakening within her, a power that will soon be put to the test.
For when foreign lords and chieftains descend upon Fryda’s home to celebrate her uncle King Beowulf’s fifty-year reign, she realizes not all their guests come with good intentions. Treachery is afoot, and Fryda must gather her courage to fight for her people…as a queen should–as a shield maiden would–and as only Fryda can.
But as Fryda’s power grows stronger, something ancient hears its call. For buried deep in her gilded lair, a dragon awakens…and Fryda must prove herself once and for all.
I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.
SHIELD MAIDEN by Sharon Emmerichs regales the reader with a retelling of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Considering I hadn’t read Beowulf since high school, I was infinitely thankful that the author provided a brief synopsis of this poem prior to diving into SHIELD MAIDEN. However, knowledge of this classic Western literature isn’t necessary to appreciate Emmerichs’s spin on the tale.
Fryda is a headstrong 20-year-old young woman in 10th century Geatland (modern Sweden) who longs to become a shield maiden. However, an unfortunate accident as a young teenager left her with a disability. Moreover, her father never supported her aspirations from the beginning. Despite these challenges, Fryda still trains in secret with the hope that one day she can serve as a warrior for her people. When her Uncle Beowulf comes to town to celebrate his 50th year of reign, Fryda begins to realize not all guests or blood relations can be trusted.
Right away one feels immersed in Fryda’s culture. Emmerichs does a phenomenal job describing the scenery, architecture, food, and cultural items without bogging down the story. I never once felt like there was an information dump. Instead I felt as though I could languidly take it all in similarly to watching a view slowly pan the scenery in a period film. The writing style is easy to settle into and it reminded me a bit of a classic, cozy, and atmospheric kind of storytelling such as in THE MAGICIAN’S DAUGHTER.
The point of view in SHIELD MAIDEN is mostly that of Fryda. However, there are sections with other points of view from Wiglaf, her brother; Theow, Fryda’s love interest and a slave; and Bryce, the blacksmith and Fryda’s trainer. Although the reader has more page time with Fryda, I felt all characters were overall well developed. Fryda is headstrong with a righteous moral compas. Theow is loyal and supportive of those he cares for deeply. Wiglaf comes off as misguided and entitled. And Bryce is a kind soul with his own secrets.
If anything, I thought Fryda was a little more naive than expected with respect to slavery and her family members. I was a little surprised at how openly she showed affection for Theow in some instances, given their clan statuses. And I was a little confused that no one questioned how frequently Fryda hung out with men unchaperoned. I know almost nothing about early medieval Swedish customs. But it seemed odd to me that the daughter of a clan lord often met up with Theow or trained with Bryce. Recent popular culture about Vikings implies women had more independence than, say, those in France. But how much more I’m just not sure. I also felt Beowulf was a bit obtuse to everything going on around him. So despite is affection for Fryda, I found him rather lacking.
Throughout SHIELD MAIDEN there are short chapters from the dragon’s point of view. They imply some connection between Fryda’s strength and the mythical creature. While I thought this was interesting, I didn’t entirely understand why they were connected. It was unclear to me if they became connected because of Fryda’s accident, or if that connection was always there, but latent.
Finally, I thought the disability representation was great. The Author’s Interview at the back provides more insight into how Emmerichs approached writing this aspect of Fryda. She made an effort to incorporate the emotional side of Fryda’s disability rather than focusing only on the physical component. Because of this the inclusion of Fryda’s disability doesn’t feel like an afterthought.
Overall, SHIELD MAIDEN by Sharon Emmerichs is an immersive retelling of Beowulf that serves as an approachable introduction to a historical Western epic. It focuses on the value everyone has to offer, regardless of their assigned clan status in a patriarchal, war-mongering society.
Content warnings: death of parent, emotionally absent parent, gaslighting, blood, assault, attempted sexual assault, death
Reading format: Kindle e-book