Last Updated on March 9, 2023
Shield Maiden is the debut novel from Sharon Emmerichs and published by Ad Astra, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Head of Zeus. It is a richly detailed historical fantasy set in the Middle Ages. Some may class it as a retelling of the story of Beowulf, but in Shield Maiden, this great king is a minor character. If readers are familiar with Beowulf, this narrative is set around the third act of the poem and the final battle with the dragon. Still, Shield Maiden is an enjoyable read without prior knowledge of the story which inspired it, as the main character, Fryda, is Emmerichs’ original creation. Shield Maiden might appeal to fans of H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke series or Shauna Lawless’ The Children of Gods and Fighting Men because of its historical setting.
The Shield Maiden of the title is Emmerichs’ protagonist Fryda. Fryda is in her early twenties throughout the narrative, except for the prologue, where teenage Fryda befalls an accident that crushes her hand. This accident causes lifelong pain and dexterity issues for Fryda, but she still trains secretly to fulfil her ambition of becoming a shield maiden. The other main character in Shield Maiden is Theow, a kitchen slave who loves Fryda and does not hide it very well. Theow, as the author’s précis notes, is the slave from the Beowulf legend who wakes the dragon.
Shield Maiden is more in the historical genre than fantasy. Excepting the dragon and her magic, there are no other fantastical elements. However, the historical detail is superb, Emmerichs’ vivid writing and attention to detail is immersive to the reader. Even though I only had a passing knowledge of the Beowulf story and limited awareness of the historical context in which Shield Maiden is set, what Emmerichs has written was clear and engaging. I was not surprised to learn that she is a professor of medieval literature once I had finished Shield Maiden because her expert knowledge shines through. I also really loved the inclusion of small point-of-view chapters from the dragon’s perspective. These are woven throughout the narrative and make the dragon feel like the novel’s third key character, rather than a mythical beast that appears at the climax only to be slain.
However, Shield Maiden differs from the warrior woman novel I expected. The romance element between Fryda and Theow is a sweet, but major part of the plot of Shield Maiden and not something that holds much appeal to me. Also, the characters felt like clichés in some instances. The ne’er do well brother, does indeed ne’er do well. Fryda (who, as an adult noblewoman, should know better) is surprised to learn that slaves are treated poorly or that they are reluctant to call her by her first name. The kindly but secretive elder paternal figures are indeed keeping some secrets. There was a predictability to the characters in Shield Maiden, which in turn made parts of the story predictable.
The final third of Shield Maiden, and the fiery climax of the story, were my favourite part of the narrative as this was the closest it came to a dark fantasy. Although my time reading Shield Maiden was well spent for some cosy bedtime reading, it probably does not appeal much to those after a dark and gritty feat of draconian escapism. However, if you are after a palate cleanser from too much grimdark and fancy a lighter and softer read, you too may find Shield Maiden enjoyable. Thank you very much to Sharon Emmerichs and the Ad Astra / Head of Zeus team for sending me a copy to provide this review.