(Sky Warrior Book Publishing LLC, May, 2015)
Reviewed by Martha Burns
No Horns on these Helmets, edited by Erin Lale, provides an overall satisfying mix of riffs on standard Norse mythology, retellings of Germanic fairy tales, and stories set in the here and now with Scandinavian elements. There are a few rousing battle scenes that are sure to satisfy those, like me, who love battle scenes and get too few of them in most contemporary fantasy and science fiction other than the fiction that is specifically billed as military science fiction. Very little background knowledge of Norse mythology is required to enjoy the stories and, when it is required, the authors do a fine job of filling readers in. If you have the basics from The Avengers, you will do just fine. In fact, all you really need to know is that Loki is a trickster whom everyone wants to imprison. Thor, surprisingly enough, has only a walk-on role. I’ve noted it in the reviews of specific stories if a little more background would help, though it is worth a mention that this review is based on an advance copy of No Horns on these Helmets. The final version may include an index of gods, creatures, and various versions of the myths.
Katla is a young woman who is her town’s new seeress in “Gullveig Drowning” by Jackson Eflin. Kayla’s job is to commune with the goddess Freya and give the town information on crops. It’s a big job and Katla doesn’t feel up to it, but the world provides her training in the form of a group of ghosts. What she learns from them in terms of her own physical endurance and psychic sensibilities gives her the courage and the skills she needs. As in any good story, the rich imagery allows the reader to fully experience Katla’s village which, given the focus of the anthology, is a Norse village. More impressively, we can feel her go through her tests of strength that are believable as just the sorts of tests a Viking seer might endure. As far as the development of her psychic abilities go, the ghosts do not behave as too many wise ghosts behave, which is to say, they don’t lecture or teach her anything explicitly, so the capacities she gains are clearly something Katla builds rather than having her enlightenment handed to her. A fine story of a young person coming into her own in both body and mind. Recommended.
Sarah is into her fourth month of pregnancy in “Second Time Around” by Brianne Chalfant. Sarah suffers complications and is rushed to the hospital where a spirit helps her through the ordeal and, following those events, Sarah and her husband, Lucas, pick a name for their child. All of this is tenderly rendered, yet no especial Norse element other than who the spirit is and the name of the child is in evidence and no special lesson or insight follows, though the story implies we have gained new insight. They say a good story has an iceberg below its surface. I wished more of this story were visible above the waterline.
“The Legend of Delbel the Butzemann” is Robert Lusch Schreiwer’s retelling of a Deitsch folk tale. Herr Meyer, an old man, asks a wise woman to make him something to help him with the farm. The wise woman makes a kind of living scarecrow who proves his worth even after Herr Meyer’s passing. The tale may be unusual to readers, but the Germanic terms are defined within the story, which I’m not sure is necessary because all of the elements are in place: a kindly old man, a wise woman, a strange being, and even a trickster. Settle in and rest assured that while you’ve heard versions of this story before, the Germanic elements give it a flare. This tale also holds up both in its own right and as a fine retelling full of sweetness. Recommended.
According to prophecy, Loki will kill the supreme Norse god, Odin, and bring about the end of the world, so to keep that from happening, the gods fashion a prison in “In Chains Until Ragnarok” by Tyree Kimber. That’s the standard tale and all one needs to know to appreciate the story, although other characters that occur in various versions of the mythology show up. Science fiction elements are incorporated into this story in the sense that the prison, which is a tree in the original tale, is a kind of a computer. It’s a nice touch whether one knows the original or not. The focus, though, is the relationship between justice in the form of the god Tyr and vengeance in the form of one of Loki’s offspring, the giant wolf Fennir. The majority of the story involves Tyr and Fennir’s dialogue and that is the strong part of the tale. That part of the story has both moral weight and tragedy. The end fizzles when Loki shows up and we find out more about his relationship to the prison and to Fennir. Since we had what amounts to a philosophical debate before Loki shows up, I expected insight into how Loki, the embodiment of chaos, affects the relationship between justice and vengeance, but that doesn’t happen. It’s therefore difficult to understand why Loki shows up at all other than that he has a part to play in the traditional tale. This was an instance of a story that was strong until the final beats, which is always a shame.
“Her Gothic Vacation” by Tony Thorne is a curious tale with many bumpy moments that do not, ultimately, add up. It’s an attempt to tell a cute story of a young woman, Janet Martin, sent by a mysterious agency to help an old man, Kurt Sangler, investigate a mystery in his gothic mansion. The stipulation is that whomever the agency sends can’t speak German. Of course the girl can. We, as readers, are ready for fun and a good reveal. Instead, what we get is too much detail about how Janet should duck walk to fit through the tunnel. Likely, the term “duck walk” would get it across, but we get information on ankle strength and positioning that seems pointless. I wanted to get back to the action and see what was in that tunnel. When we do find out what’s in the old house after entirely too long a time in the tunnel (where there’s never much tension about the trip or Janet’s welfare), the payoff is nothing new.
This is a story with a battle scene to make Homer proud. In “Blades of Ice and Ivory” by Christine Morgan, a Viking girl, Freylinde, goes on sea adventure with her father, Ravi. She’s excited about rowing on the longship with the other grownup sailors, yet disaster hits. One of the strongest of the lot, the focus of this story isn’t Freylinde and her father but, rather, on the sea monster ripping apart the longship. The action is superb and I especially enjoyed that all of the sailors were eaten in various grotesque ways and that the monster, in addition, isn’t your everyday sea monster. When kindly sea beasts show up to save the day, I had a sinking feeling out of fear that good, gritty action would turn sentimental, but it didn’t. Instead, the sea monsters are just getting the humans out of the way so that the guardians of the sea can do the job humans can’t. The blood keeps flowing. Recommended.
A much-abused wizard’s apprentice pleads for a Norseman’s life when a barbarian sneaks near the wizard’s tower in “The Dragon Bone Tower” by Cynthia Ward. Kandar the wizard, who is not a nice guy, tells his poor apprentice, Ajani, to set up the ritual that will send the barbarian to Hell. Things go poorly for the evil wizard, as one would expect. Though the story is satisfying overall, there is some significant bumpiness that makes it far less than it could be. The author is aiming for a high tale tone overall and contemporary terms and images clash with that, somewhat interrupting a smooth read and making for head scratching moments. A key part of Kandar’s nastiness is that he hates Ajani because the young man is attracted to manly men. Hence, Kandar calls Ajani a “pathetic pansy” and so on and so forth. There’s nothing especially contemporary about the form Kandar’s nastiness takes given that homophobia has an unfortunately strong history, but the contemporary slurs just don’t fit with the high tale tone. Later, an evil spirits shows up and uses terms like “punk” while smacking a riding crop into her hand. All of that might have worked. Sword and sorcery with contemporary touches, especially at comic moments, can work splendidly. Here, it didn’t quite.
In “Victorious Girlfriend” by Laura Dasnoit, Daniel Dodge temporarily borrows a rare manuscript (without asking) from the museum where he works. When he takes it to a nearby bar to read it at his leisure, a strange group of people chain the door and demand he tell them the tale, after which they promise to let him go. We get some very heavy-handed indications about the identities of the group that feel unnecessary and some lighthearted banter that feels out of place, and then we get to the tale. The tale is about Loki’s wife, Sigyn, who has a pivotal part to play in the overall saga of the gods, but never has a story of her own in the basic mythology. In the basic mythology, when Loki is chained up to a tree to keep him from killing Odin and bringing about the end of the world, a serpent drips poison onto Loki’s head and his wife stands next to him with a bowl. Because of that, Sigyn is generally taken to be a symbol of fidelity and sometimes she’s even called the goddess of fidelity. The story Daniel borrows from the museum expands on her story and explains why there’s so little known about Sigyn. The story has nice drama and tension, but the struggle to expand on a part of a story within a mythology most people don’t know while also telling the story in a contemporary setting creates discordant moments. What do you tell to orient readers who only have basic knowledge? What don’t you provide to avoid confusing them? Which “in jokes” for those who do know the mythology are permissible in this context? The author doesn’t always strike the right balance. For example, the end of the Sigyn story will likely perplex those who lack some background information that the story does not provide. Daniel’s Sigyn story is told as a dramatic and serious story, yet after all of the durm und strang of the tale, we find out that Sigyn’s heroic deeds earn her the title “Victorious Girlfriend.” Now that is, roughly, what her name means, since it’s the feminine form of the words “victorious” and “friend,” but it feels like an odd term for a goddess and I predict people who do not already know the story and what Sigyn’s name literally means (a very select group) will wonder why it’s supposed to be the big reveal and why his wife is actually his girlfriend. It is, in short, an example of a piece of background information that isn’t provided and will likely confuse readers for that reason alone. On the other hand, some very esoteric mythic information that plays no significant part is provided, such as that the gods like apples. Achieving the right balance is difficult for any story that changes a part of a mythology with which people have only passing familiarity, which is to say, one they only know from the movies. Here, that difficulty wasn’t overcome.
Gunnlauge is on a mission to deliver a sword to a wizard so that he can slay a sea serpent that lives at the bottom of a lake. Inside the lake, there may be a door that would get Gunnlauge back home to her northern kin. She’ll need a way back since her boat was destroyed. The mythic world in “The Door in the Lake” by T.J. O’Hare is dense and I’d argue that it’s too dense for a short story. There are blind heroes, magical swan feathers, Loki’s children, and a tie between druids and Norse gods. Fatigue sets in at a certain point, which is too bad. Given the richness of the setting, it provides the possibility of many storylines to come. For this single storyline, though, it all felt too much.
Eir, the youngest Valkyrie, is unhappy with her role in “The Youngest Valkyrie” by Kathryn M. Hearst. Valkyries roam the battlefield and decide which dying soldiers who will go to Asgard and which won’t. Eir wants to be something gentler, a healer, which one of her sisters, Mist, rightly points out comes to much the same thing. Either way, you’re choosing which dying soldiers to save. Eir doesn’t think this through. When she falls in love with a mortal and promises to always heal him in battle, she unwittingly creates a hero who begins as a kind young man and grows to be someone with a very high opinion of himself and of his importance to the gods. That is a trait of your average hero, but not the best trait in a lover. Eir’s continued naivety and Roluo’s development in light of her decision gets fully developed. Ruolo comes across as a man who, over the years, comes to some very grown up realizations that we don’t see many people make in fiction, and which we don’t expect in a story about an immortal goddess and a man. Ruolo realizes his success is due to equal parts luck and character. Rather than make him bitter, that realization gives him a proper perspective on life. In short, we see a boy become a man. Eir never does learn to be wise and that feels right as well because gods do not need to grow up, yet failing to do so has consequences. Two moments feel forced in the story, which detract from its overall strength. First, an extraneous mean sister gets introduced late in the story purely to make life difficult for Eir. Second, the ending gives the reader what he or she expects from a romance rather than what follows from the characters’ personalities. This is told as a myth. Whatever Disney has done with them, many myths are dark affairs, but this story has a Disney ending with a touch of sadness added. A deeper meditation, I suspect, would have had a different ending. Still, the character development is superb and the awkward elements get so little focus that it’s easier to overlook them than in a story where the weak bits overshadow the rest. Recommended.
“To Love Loki” by Gerri Leen shows us that Loki, like so many gods, got around. In this short, short story, one of Loki’s former lovers with whom he has children, an ice giantess named Angrboda, visits him in prison. The story maintains the standard elements where Loki is in a cave, forever chained under a stream of poison where his faithful wife, Sigyn, kneels to catch the poison. We expect a scene between a jilted lover and the man who abandoned her and her children, which we get, but then the story shifts in a way I didn’t see coming, yet felt so right. I predict readers will enjoy the twist. Recommended.
Ross Baxter offers up a thoroughly enjoyable, light-hearted contemporary tale with “Norn Porridge.” The story is about an executive from a cereal company who goes on vacation and encounters an old woman. This old woman makes the executive, Kristin Solberg, some porridge and Solberg is convinced the porridge will save her struggling company, though they need the recipe first. Solberg and her fellow executives travel to meet this old woman, prepared to offer her money for her recipe, but they balk when they find the secret ingredients she’s been adding since the Norse gods roamed the Earth. Recommended.
In “The Guardian” by John Loving, a former military spy gets a message from the Norse gods. Randal Thorpe gives up his job to become a swim instructor and he soon discovers why he got set on this path. When all becomes clear, no point or character insight follows, though it is set up for just that. We see what Randal’s supposed to do and then want to see how the effort changes him. Why, in short, did the gods choose him? What about his character made that the right choice and how will that get developed in his new job? The story includes strong imagery and clear, direct prose, but it is more of a scene than a story.
Going into this anthology, I had a longing for Viking zombies, but I didn’t hold out much hope. I am happy to report that “A Draugr’s Tale” by Hugh B. Long gave me what I wanted and sad to report that the story, so skillful and gripping in so many ways, ends with a sigh rather than a pop. Erik Ragnarsson and his crew get washed up on the shore of a strange land dotted with ancient burial mounds. One should never, ever rob ancient graves, of course, but Erik’s crew is none too smart. Along with Erik is his adopted brother Aedan, a former slave. Aedan has spent a lifetime being too timid and Erik is proud when Aedan proves his worth and deals with the mess caused by the rest of the crew. Aedan’s newfound skill eventually comes to nothing though, and I was left pining for the story that might have been. The end tries for poignancy, but achieves a lack of closure.
“Kinsmen” by Garman Lord is another story that doesn’t quite nail the ending, though the elements are enjoyable. This is a mystery set in contemporary New York in which Morris Goldfische finds a pair of ancient skulls, one dressed in Viking armor and the other dressed in Native American garb. His neighbor, Annie, just happens to be psychic. She reveals the mystery surrounding the skulls with no effort and no pushback from anyone in the story. Then it ends.
Erin Lale’s “Woodencloak” uses elements of the Norse mythology we haven’t seen so far. There are trolls, magical bulls, and other fun flourishes. The author doesn’t over explain these elements or point out that they do fit in with the rest of the mythology. That’s most welcome. What we have is a standard Cinderella story in which a beautiful princess, Katherine, gets cast out by her evil stepmother. Katherine has a clacking and clanking wooden cloak that protects her and a magical bull on her side, but little else. A worthless prince who doesn’t appreciate Katherine’s true worth shows up, but the magical bull remains true. There are moves that deviate from the standard Cinderella tale, but we’ve come to expect such things thanks to Shrek and a host of retellings that make the princes not so charming. It doesn’t feel tired, but this version doesn’t feel all that new either.
In “Blood Allies” by L. J. Bonham, a Viking werewolf and his shield maiden wife go searching for a killer. They suspect it’s a vampire and, to disprove their theory, an older vampire offers to help them. They find the killer, who turns out to be sillier and sparklier than the previous story would suggest. I was left wondering if this was a story that was meant to be playful from the beginning and I missed something or whether it was meant to be a straight story that fails to achieve its goals. On a reread, I think it’s the latter.
Loki is a half-elf boy who is also a fire spirit in “Kenaz” by Hannah Burton. Odin asks for his help to build civilization and their discussion provides another take on the relationship between Odin and Loki. The high tale tone is done seamlessly in this whimsical story. Recommended.
“Jörmungandr” by Jeff Szappan is an inventive science fiction spin on Loki’s misdeeds that makes him a more morally complex figure than we usually get. Loki is a bioengineer who creates nanites with the best of intentions in mind. To echo the old tale, the nanites are known as “the Serpent” and they threaten to destroy everything. Loki once again turns to technology to save the day and just as in the usual story, he seems trapped by his plot, though here his efforts are to save us all. Casting Loki as a good-looking and frustrated do-gooder is the change here and it’s welcome, not only for its novelty, but for the insight. Villains aren’t merely those with bad intent. They can be good people who fail to think things through. Recommended.
Culainn, a warrior and tracker, leads Astrid, a witch with little experience with the wilderness, through the forest so that she can perform a ritual in the Grove of the Ancients. Culainn has an old score to settle with a wolf and when the wolf shows up, Astrid turns from a liability to an asset. All the right notes are hit in “A Wolf in the Hills” by J. M. Ross to the degree that it feels like it would have fit nicely in one of Tolkien’s endless appendices. Recommended.