GrendelSong #2

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"The Goddess Queen’s Battlefield" by Eugie Foster
"Azieran: Maixgloan" by Christopher Heath
"Pretty Mary" by Samantha Henderson
"The Gods-Forsaken World" by Steve Goble
"The Glaring Inaccuracy of the Bards" by Berrien C. Henderson
"By the Light of the Dark" by Stephanie Burgis

Eugie Foster
‘s "The Goddess Queen’s Battlefield" is one of the standouts in issue #2 of GrendelSong.  Set on a battlefield where the Goddess Queen orders a fresh charge every morning—with the slaughter that inevitably ensues—the story follows Will, a soldier who, after the loss of his brother in battle, comes to the Goddess Queen with one simply question: "Why?"

The language is stark and beautiful, like one of the ancient epics: deceptively simple sentences like "He left his weapons in the mud, unceremoniously, like one discards a meat-scoured bone, or threadbare shirt, or the body of a brother" nevertheless carry an enormous emotional weight. The ending took me by surprise—but in retrospect I see it was inevitable—and it is a poignant, fitting conclusion to a fine tale. 


In "Azieran: Maixgloan" by Christopher Heath, veteran soldier Maaridos tells the tale of a bloody battle against heathens to a young soldier about to depart for the front—and of the feats of valor that he accomplished. But is Maaridos all that he seems?

"Azieran: Maixgloan" starts out with all the trappings of sword and sorcery—grimy men in a desperate situation, a barbarian horde whose king wields an accursed sword. The style of the narrative as told by Maaridos is deliberately over-the-top, reminiscent of the old Conan tales. Though it is well done, I found the story not to my taste: most probably because the flowery narrative makes it hard to cling to the characters. The ending, which leaves the reader wondering at which parts of the story were true, felt more like the punch line to a bad joke than a real denouement; the device of the unreliable narrator has, I fear, been overused in genre fiction, and Heath brings little that is new to the trope.

"Pretty Mary" by Samantha Henderson is a short piece based on a traditional ballad, as the epigraph indicates. The narrator, Pretty Mary, is a noble-born girl being forced into a marriage with Lord Randall for the sake of her dowry. Before the wedding can take place, she is carried away by her peasant lover, Jakob. But they do not go far enough, and they know Lord Randall is coming.

Although very short (flash length), this piece is nevertheless powerful and very effective. Strictly speaking, nothing much happens during the narrative, but it manages in its short span of time to capture perfectly well the indomitable spirit of Pretty Mary, and to reflect upon the fate of those forgotten by stories and ballads.

In "The Gods-Forsaken World" by Steve Goble, Calthus has just been summoned back from Hell and discovers that the city he used to serve is now a deserted ruin, abandoned by its gods. At a loss over what to do, Calthus joins Captain Kostas and his wizard, Revilin, but their journey back to civilization is not as calm as expected.

Again, this is a piece that has strong echoes of sword and sorcery—the opening sequence among ruins lost in the desert is almost a cliché of the genre. Amidst the rather unremarkable trappings (the ruined city which used to be an empire, the fights against mysterious pirates who may be commanded by a demon), Goble reflects on the nature of faith, and on whether it is worth serving gods who do not necessarily have your welfare in mind. I’m afraid I found the answer to those profound questions rather simplistic, but the story itself is still enjoyable.

"The Glaring Inaccuracy of the Bards" by Berrien C. Henderson is a retelling of the end of the Beowulf tale. Halga, stumbling out of his lord’s hall after a "misunderstanding" meets a decrepit dragon whose only wish is to die—and Halga agrees to help him, in exchange for part of the dragon’s hoard.

I am not overly acquainted with the characters in Beowulf, and I suspect this is one tale which strongly depends on knowing the original to catch most of what is going on. From the point of view of someone unfamiliar with Beowulf, this has some interesting ideas, delivered with a mordant sense of humor: the story dwells on the decrepitude of old age and the desperate need for a glorious death (ideas which, although they would seem to depart from the epic’s standards, are actually already contained within it). But, ultimately, the story falls short—the multiple strands of the narration failing to converge into a coherent whole.

"By the Light of the Dark" by Stephanie Burgis is the issue’s other standout, a retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." The narrator, a nameless princess, accepts a bear as her husband. At night, the bear turns into a man, but she is not allowed to see his face.  Of course, her curiosity gets the better of her. Now the damage is done, and her husband has disappeared, and she seeks to bring him back to her.

This is a lovely story with a strong sense of atmosphere—the language is beautiful and sings like that of a poem. The story’s thrust is the fight between Reason and Need; as the narrator puts it: "I was the girl who had been praised for her reason. I could not dare to trust my heart." Her journey into a country where reason no longer applies is well depicted, and the lessons she learns about the nature of love are timeless ones—but still very much needed.


This issue of Grendelsong also features some strong poetry and a very interesting article on contraception in antiquity and medieval times by E. Sedia.