The Hidden Blade in the Stone: A Review of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Sword of the White Horse
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A Celtic warrior defending her people from Viking raiders infiltrates an ancient sect to save her homeland, in this gripping original saga set in the world of Assassin's Creed® Valhalla
Mercia, 878. Witch-warrior Niamh discovers a new order called the Hidden Ones is seeking to establish a foothold in Lunden. Her land is already scarred by Viking raiders, bloody wars, and clashing cultures. Determined to protect what remains of her homeland, she infiltrates this new group to discover whether they stand with her… or against her. Yet when Niamh learns the Hidden Ones have stolen an artifact sacred to her people, her own loyalties are challenged. Casting aside newfound alliances and friendships, Niamh soon discovers that betrayal comes with a heavy price and it will take everything in her power – her gods willing – to survive.
*Review copy provided by Aconyte Books | Minor character/story spoiler warning
2022 has been a major year for transmedia in the Assassin’s Creed Universe, with a major focus on Ubisoft’s latest entry, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. With multiple updates adding additional content, a third expansion and prequel comic which explores the Norse God storyline of Odin/Havi. The most recent of the additions being a new novel, in which the world of 9th century England reaches aspects that no other title in the series has met before. Characters continue to be developed and periods of time between content releases on the Valhalla roadmap are being filled in an effort to keep fans of the series engaged until the next flagship title. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Sword of the White Horse (SotWH) is the newest novel released by Ubisoft and publisher Aconyte Books, written by author, Elsa Sjunneson; a Hugo, Aurora & British Fantasy Award Winner who’s work has appeared in Serial Box’s: Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Playing with Fire, Uncanny Magazine, and Fireside.
Set in 878 Mercia, SotWH follows a new character Niamh (pronounced Neeve), a witch-warrior tasked with retrieving a sacred artefact stolen from her people by the Hidden Ones. Her mission takes her across England with opposition from factions attempting to claim the artefact for themselves, in a story that takes place post-Valhalla, but before Wrath of the Druids. Initial impressions from the cover gives us an insight into what we can expect the book to be about, as it depicts who we can safely assume is our lead character holding Excalibur in front of Stonehenge,
Beginning in Caledonia (modern day Scotland), Niamh of Avalon receives orders from The Lady, leader of The Women of the Mist, and protector of Excalibur (of Authurian legend), who has intercepted an invitation from the Hidden Ones to another woman named Nimue whom they are wanting to test to see if she would fit in with their Brotherhood. The Lady requests that Niamh takes her place and infiltrates this order that is trying to expand its foothold in Lunden. Her background as a witch-warrior, skilled with a sword and healing abilities from experiences of Viking raids and understanding the properties of nature will aid her in the task to locate and reclaim Excalibur from those that had taken it from its vault under Stonehenge.
Sword of the White Horse builds upon the world of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla already established within the game's lore. With a focus on the story of Excalibur, a Sword of Eden, this book takes a single Isu Artifact and develops a story around that. The history of the blade and how it was used as a symbol of righteousness that would be provided to a chosen king provides backstory without the need of an origin story or flashback chapter. From this, the Women of the Mist were the expanded group that the Lady of the Lake represented in the legend of King Arthur. From this group the lead character Niamh was formed as a guide through the lore.
During the opening chapters, Sjunneson does a fantastic job of not only introducing and describing this main character in a pre-existing setting of AC Valhalla’s England, but explores the spiritual beliefs of Niamh, a follower of the Morrigan (an Irish God of war and fate), and how she sees nature as a living being and something to respect, as its wrath can be worse than her enemies. Using the Women of the Mist as a way to tie in the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to Valhalla, Niamh will learn the history of Avalon and what makes Excalibur so powerful.
I found that Sjunneson’s writing was so well laid out that everything made sense without needing to know the full history of the real world lore of this story, and felt like a traditional Assassin’s Creed story as the writing is easy to visualise as a scene from the game. Having played Valhalla myself, it was easy to dive into the story as if I was loading a save file. While I believe the story can stand on its own as all characters are well described, it would be beneficial to play the game first so you have a more general understanding of the characters and settings from this universe and the knowledge of how Excaliber is taken, giving context to why this story was written.
The supporting cast is composed of familiar characters from the game, Hytham and Valka, in addition to a few new characters on both sides of the main conflict in the story. This was one of my favourite aspects of SotWH as getting to learn more about the fan favourite Assassin and Seeress was something that Valhalla lacked. By using these returning characters, fans of the game are not left to struggle with determining how the story fits into the game and gave me personally a yearning to know what did happen to Hytham post game?.
In the previous AC Valhalla novel, Geirmund’s Saga, the protagonist Geirmund was the son of two supporting characters that players would meet during their playthrough, Ljuvina and Hjörr, but as the book was a prequel to the events of the game, visualizing it could be considered difficult.
Getting to read about Hytham as a mentor to Niamh, and learn what has happened to him post-game and how his training of this new recruit reflects the teachings he learned from Basim (though not mentioned). We also get to see how Hytham responds to an Assassin with a more aggressive nature, with the introduction of the Roman Assassin Marcella, who is the leader of the Lunden Bureau. Marcella’s “prove yourself” attitude vs Hytham’s “lets see what you can do” approach fuels the internal conflict that Niamh will use to her advantage to accomplish her end goal. However, Marcella’s distrust of Niamh creates a hindrance that adds her to the list of opponents.
Valka’s storyline gave the mysterious character a more grounded persona and more natural dialogue than what she has in the game, where she acts as Eivor's connection to the gods and lore of the Norse religion. In SotWH, Valka wants to learn more about the beliefs of Niamh’s people and her history of healing with natural herbs and the earth. While initially kept at a distance, Valka and Niamh become closer as they work together against their enemies The Hidden Ones, the Order of the Ancients and the enemy of Avalon, the Descendants of the Round Table.
Stealth, sword fights, and parkour playout in the traditional style of an Assassin’s Creed story and culminate in meeting the one who is in possession of Excalibur, Eivor Varinsdottir in a scene that is fuelled with a Viking Battle Cry.
The amount of female characters from the lead to supporting characters is something that is a benefit for the AC universe as a whole. Since the release of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, players have wanted to see more female leads in the stories as the series in whole was male-dominated for the many years prior. Niamh, The Lady, Valka, Marcella, Eivor, and other smaller roles are all women that have key arcs in the story, but don’t overshadow or look down on the male figures such as Hytham and the Order of the Ancients antagonist. The story is powerful in its representation without being pandering. This comes from the experience of the writer, as Sjunnesson herself is a vocal ally for women-rights and those of the Queer community. She is someone who has made her voice heard in real life and in her writing. As I explore readings like this more and more, I find that this is a sign of the future of the Assassin’s Creed series and the core beliefs of the Ubisoft Team’s multicultural/gender/orientation equality stance.
This book is an absolute must for not only fans of the Assassin’s Creed games, but for fans of stories of legend and readers of any age. As a work of historical fiction, the story is a solid concept of what could happen to the sword, but as an Assassin’s Creed title, it provides another serving of the Valhalla epic that has been growing larger and larger into its second year of connected content. I would love to see future stories on this unique and original character in the future, even after the focus on Valhalla ends and fans move onto the next title. A sequel could be written as the question, “What's next for the lead?” was on the tip of my tongue, seeing the book end with a new role given to Niamh. While the AC Valhalla story may be finished with the original characters from this story, a spin off series could be made to explore the history of the Women of the Mist and their foes The Descendants of the Round Table, much like the history of the Assassins v Templar.
Once again, Aconyte has published a great read that ties-in perfectly with Ubisoft’s action-adventure series. Much like Geirmund’s Saga, and The Ming Storm, each release from this publishing house is a guaranteed hit in my eyes. In my time exploring the AC Universe, and having read seven of the novels published previously by Penguin, and Geirmund’s Saga, published by Aconyte, I have found that novels are a great way to retell the story of the games in an organized fashion that cuts out the filler of controlling the character through side quests and uncovering a full map. These mechanics are great for a game, but the books will tell the story as it is meant to be told and provide the additional insight of a character’s emotion or inner monologue. When the book stands alone as an Assassin’s Creed Stories Chronicles or Original, the freedom of not knowing what will happen and truly experiencing a work for the first time, for me at least, is much more intimate.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Sword of the White Horse is available worldwide via Aconyte’s site and wherever books are sold.
About the Author
Mike Smith is a collector of all things Assassin's Creed and a major supporter for the transmedia platform for the series. With nearly a full library of Assassin's Creed media, he is exploring the universe in order of Genetic Memory and waiting eagerly for the next story to be released.
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