Peaceweaver, by Rebecca Barnhouse (Random House, 2012, middle grade/YA, 336 pages)
At the end of The Coming of the Dragon, a retelling of the story of Beowulf, a new character was introduced --Hild, a high-ranking girl from a neighboring kingdom, sent to be the bride to the new king of the Geats, hopefully weaving peace as a consequence of her marriage. Even though Hild had very little page time indeed, she was an incredibly compelling character, and I know I'm not alone in putting down that book with a desperate need to find out more of her story.
Happily, the author obliged--Peaceweaver is Hild's story.
Hild was an honored member of her community. She was the new mead bearer the hall of her uncle, the King of Shylfings, secure in her position, and determined to use her influence to foster peace between all the various small kingdoms of her part of Dark Age northern Europe.
But then a few hours of playful sword practice with her younger cousin, the king's son, goes horribly wrong. Possessed by a supernatural force, Hild drives her sword into a visiting warrior from another kingdom--somehow she knew that he was about to murder her cousin. Now Hild is persona non grata, isolated in small cell, waiting for her fate to be decided by her uncle, and the poisonous, war-hungry bard who has his ear.
When emissaries of the Geats, Beowulf's people, come seeking peace, Hild is sent away with them, to be a Peaceweaver through marriage between the two kingdoms. But Hild knows that she is to become a living lie--her uncle has no intention of letting the peace last.
In the course of her journey to the kingdom of the Geats, Hild must decided who, and what, she will be. But she must also come to terms with the supernatural gift that seizes hold of her when there is danger...and there is danger aplenty on the road to her new home. For Grendal and his mother, of Beowulf fame, are not the only such monsters...
And then finally we get to see Rune (from The Coming of the Dragon). I, for one, loved him already....but will Hild????? And then after that, all too soon, the book ends....Now that we have the backstory for both Rune and Hild, please let there be a third book about the both of them!!!
Peaceweaver, like The Coming of the Dragon, is absolutely top notch historical fantasy. The fantastical elements (the monsters, the intervention of deities, Hild's strange gift) don't in the least make the book feel less plausible, less truly set in the dark ages of Europe; the world-building happens organically and convincingly, with lots of details woven into the story, and not just flat-out told. Rebecca Barnhouse has proven herself to be an author of historical fiction who I feel I can read with the relaxed confidence that comes from trusting that no nasty little anachronistic bits are going to kick me out of the story.
Hild is a most excellent character. From the beginning of the book, she is sympathetic, but she grows up during the course of events, become more thoughtful about her world and her place in it. For instance, she's forced to question somewhat her assumptions about the slavery that's part of her culture--and although she doesn't repudiate it on moral grounds, which would be ridiculously anachronistic, she does have a moment of truth in which she realizes that there is more to the lives of those who are enslaved than their service to their captors.
She's a strong character, in that she isn't afraid to act, but her abilities don't strain credulity--she knows how to use a sword (that scene on the cover really happens), but she's no Valkyrie. Likewise, she wants to do the right thing, but she's no holier than thou, unselfish martyr about it, and she also wants for things to work out nicely for herself!
Peaceweaver can perfectly well be read on its own, but since it includes spoilers for The Coming of the Dragon, that one really should be read first. That being said, I think Peaceweaver is the more statisfying of the two in its pacing and its plot...
Note on age of reader: Hild is 16, so "young adult," but there's nothing in her story that makes it unsuitable for young readers. I'd be happy to hand this to a ten year old (which I see the publisher thinks too!). There's a bit of violent death here and there, but not so violent as to be traumatic. The arc of the story--happy young person's life is disrupted, a journey must be made and a fate chosen--is more, to me, a "middle grade" story than a "young adult" one. But boy, do I ever want the young adult story of what happens next!
Here are other reviews, at The Book Smugglers, and at Random Musings of a Bilbiophile.
And here's an interview with Rebecca Barnhouse at The Enchanted Inkpot.
(disclaimer: review copy very gratefully (there might have been a squee) received from the publisher)