Choosers of the Slain is part Norse mythology, part historical fiction, for the descriptions of how people live, labor, struggle and die are quite realistic and vivid. Most people, as we learn from the tales, lead ordinary lives, as indicated by the plain color of their life’s thread. Most people also assume that their life is fated, imposed upon them by the three Norns. Whether a golden fate is assigned by Fate or sought out and smelted by souls dissatisfied by resignation is, perhaps, a key question that this story does not answer, but does raise. Ann Chamberlin is a subversive writer, but her radical ideas slip sideways into your peripheral vision rather than assaulting you head-on.
One extraordinary aspect of this book how the author has the god Odin speak in the old speech proper to the god of wisdom and inspiration: in riddles and rhythmic alliteration, the oldest form of poetry. Chamberlin’s writing in these passages is amazing. Also contagious: I could not help lapsing into alliteration myself as I wrote the rest of the review:
Here is the saga of Brynhild, the Valkyrie who defies Odin All-father not once but three times, so he condemns her to mortality and enchanted sleep, surrounded by a ring of fire that can be breached only by the greatest hero never yet born, the one who will wake and rouse her to her doom. Wagner made the story famous in his Ring Cycle, but he takes up the tale late in Brynhild’s life, being but little concerned with the ways and woes of women; here is her beginning.
From childhood Brynhild is a misfit in her village: tall for her age, challenging elders and traditional tales with queries that make her unwelcome, looking through lies to see the skull concealed, past the cold comfort of custom to the binding betrayal of belief. She has no liking for the life of ladies: bedding, birthing, and bemoaning the wanton waste of war. Obstinate and obdurate, she accompanies her one friend to a perilous ceremony, the self-selection of a sacrifice to fend off famine, the death of the one defeating dearth for all or so it is said. Whoever finds the death stone in the meal made of the last harvest sheath but one the last one, and the best, being dedicated to Odin is done to death by all the others who tasted the fateful fare. Brynhild holds the death stone in her hand, but does not die, and that is the first time the wildness of her weird is out of keeping with the kenning of men. But the Norns know, and one prophesizes that she, who was not slain, will be a chooser of the slain, deciding who dies and, by defiance, who lives.
But are the gods such that mortals may meet them? Yes; at least, a tall wanderer whose cloak and one eye match the changing color of the sky asks her in the old speech of riddles and alliteration if she will go with him, of her own choice as well as of his choosing. And three times she says Yes.
That is the all-important, pivotal aspect of this story that distinguishes it from, say, The Mists of Avalon, where even the attempt to defy fate only twists the sword one seeks to escape deeper into one’s organs, or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, where people are compelled to participate in picking who will one who perish, for no guileful good. Brynhild’s fate is not forced upon her; she chooses it.
Again and again, Brynhild seems to be charmed, cheating direful death by luck or the leeway of love; but along the way her questing ways and questioning whys are deemed defiance by Odin, keeper of accounts, and that most strict telling takes its toll at last. She falls from favor for saving Signy the sad-fated swan, she who will bear the brother-begotten babe who will live and later breach the bier-fire of Brynhild’s bower. Chris R. Paige