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Heathen vol 1

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Natasha Alterici


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Under a cover as soft to the touch as a horse's hide resides a tale of love, resilience and fortitude told with lithe beauty, great supple strength and the odd dash of light, bright, unexpected humour when it comes to the wight and the wolves.

"I liked him."
"Me too. I'm glad we didn't eat him."

HEATHEN is born from a deep love of stories and storytelling. Alterici proves exceedingly proficient in that art, and judicious in both her timing and selection, for it is constructed with impressive precision, as you shall see.

"Do not be coy. We immortals live cyclical lives, playing out the same dramas over and over again.
"So when a key plot point changes, it's bound to be noticed.
"And indeed someone has noticed."

So speaks Ruadan, trickster god and spy. He may well be immortal, but our protagonist Aydis most certainly isn't.

She is, however, resourceful, fearless and well versed in the legends of Odin and his female Valkyrie.

"They were strong, beautiful, and struck terror in even the bravest men's hearts.
"Charged with escorting the souls of fallen warriors to Valhalla, the Valkyrie were given power over death itself.
"But their power is not without limit, for Odin still dictates the fate of every warrior. No warrior lives or dies without Odin's consent."

Except that warrior one did: a king whom Odin determined would be victorious in war was struck down by Brynhild of the Valkyrie, for which temerity Odin banished and cursed her, forcing Brynhild to marry a mortal and live out her endless days in exile.

Evidently, however, Brynhild was not without her bargaining power, for although she agreed to this sentence, she did so on her own terms: on the condition that she chose the mortal in question through a test of her own. As so often with these things, it was a test of worthiness. She ascended Mount Hinderfall and encircled herself in fire - magic fire - to await a mate courageous enough to breach the barrier and free her.

Every element of what I have told you is vital for what follows. Writer and artist Alterici has left nothing extraneous in the mix and thought everything through.

There is, for example, a degree of due ceremony both later on in Aydis's construction of her helmet from fallen stag antlers - which male deer use in combat with each other for dominance in securing their mates - and in her telling of this tale to her horse. Just as a silhouetted Brynhild raises her arms to ignite the blazing curtain and in welcoming wait of whomever should succeed, so Aydis raises her own in front of her fire and welcoming that challenge.

"That story was passed through our clan for hundreds of years..."

Her arms drop down, lank, to her side, in time to a perfect moment of pomposity-puncturing deflation enhanced by a modern colloquialism:

"If it's true, she's been waiting an awfully long time."

Alterici has made everything here look effortless, including Aydis's hand-to-horn combat with the bull. Oh yes, that's more male power conquered.

The choreography is exceptionally slick but, in addition, behold the energy in a broken line!

She doesn't seek to confine her virile steeds, stag or stampeding bull in a rigid outline, so sapping their movement and might; instead she suggests their exterior contours and body mass in relation to their environment with flurries and flashes of instinctive slashes, while her colouring is equally loose and lambent.

I promised you that nothing in Aydis' opening recollection of the Valkyries (and Brynhild in particular) was random. It's not. For Aydis too is in exile - a self-imposed exile for everyone believes she is dead. Moreover, she is in exile because she dared to break a taboo, and was caught kissing a girl. Her father (not she) was given an ultimatum by the patriarchal Elders: execute his daughter or marry her off against her will to a man.

Thank the gods for one good soul, then, for he chose neither. Instead he pretended to mourn his daughter at her graveside in order to cover her escape.

Two other things you should know about our Aydis in addition to being fearless, resourceful and very well versed: she is determined and ambitious:

"On some mountain top, a Valkyrie waits alone.
"And I intend to free her."

Should she succeed, there yet remains Odin's curse and although you may be thinking "Hooray, for Aydis, for she is mortal and will have Brynhild's hand in marriage!", Aydis's ambition is not for herself, but to prove women equal in courage to men. Also, she has had quite enough of marriage being imposed on others by the dictates of males, be they local leaders or the all-father Odin: she would see Brynhild liberated from her curse rather than further confined by it.

In any case, she won't have been the first.

"All the men who've crossed the flames have been brave, but that trait is often coupled with stupidity, recklessness, cruelty. Not Sighurd, though. He was different. And not just because of his unfortunate immortality. He was good.
"Brynhild really loved him."

What went so wrong that Brynhild once more waits in that circle of fire? With his limited lifespan, did he die like so many others? Not at all: Sighurd The Broken Hearted is very much alive, though lost to a terrible turn of events and a mightily cruel twist.

"Odin's curse was very specific..."

All this is narrated to Aydis by Freyja, Valkyrie Queen and Goddess of Love, who has taken a shine to Aydis. Bare-breasted, sybaritic and ever so alluring, Freyja overtly offers Aydis a less lonely alternative to her societal ostracism in sexual fulfilment.

Is that what Aydis' about?

The final page will tell you precisely what Aydis is about, and it's delivered with a fierce, unflinching resolve and an eye to the future.
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