Steel Hand, Cold Heart by Rachel Menard

On the island of Helvar, women rule. Sixteen-year-old Carina has trained for most of her life to belong to the coveted Daughters of Hel, the steel-handed Viking warriors who provide souls to the Death Goddess in exchange for the prosperity of their island. Gaining her place hasn’t been easy. She was not borne of the island, but another spoil from another raid, raised by the island Chieftain. There are many who would see her fail, and on her first raid, she does. She doesn’t kill a priestess she should have.

Carina needs to prove her worth or risk losing her place. Before she can, her arch-nemesis drugs her wine and sends her off the isle as a captive of three foreign boys. But what is Carina’s greatest misfortune may turn out to be her greatest gift. The young men are taking her to the jewel of the Southern Isles – Fortis Venitis, a place no other Daughter of Hel can venture. Carina can place Hel’s claims on the Southern isle and return to Helvar with the spoils, a victor.

However there are many obstacles to pass before she reaches her goal. Like her rune stone that everyone keeps trying to steal, the mismatched pirates from a country that no longer exists, and the priest with his poison that melts flesh from bones. But the most dangerous obstacle of all are the odd feelings she’s developing for her victims, especially the knife-thieving captain Nik. That could make it difficult for her to kill him in the end.

Trigger Warning: Mentions of abuse, mentions of rape, assorted violence

Sixteen year old Carina the Unstoppable is one of the Daughters of Hel. The Daughters are a group of Viking warriors who provide souls to the Death Goddess in exchange for prosperity for their own island. Becoming a Daughter of Hel is not an easy task, for Carina it is doubly so as she was not born on the island. But Carina is determined to prove herself and prove worthy of the steel gauntlet she wears.

On the evening of her first raid, Carina is drugged by her nemesis and given to three foreign boys as a captive. She learns that the boys are taking her to Fortis Venitis, an island the Daughters of Hel have never been able to raid. If Carina can place a claim on the Southern Isle and return home with a ship full of spoils, she knows she be held in the highest regard and will have truly earned her place.

But the trip is difficult and fraught with danger – both known and unknown. If Carina is to make it home again she’ll have to fight hard to survive and somehow harden her heart against the emotions she is beginning to develop for her captors.

Steel Hand, Cold Heart is (I believe) the first full length novel for author Rachel Menard. And from the first few lines of the first chapter, it is a wild adventure.

The main character Carina is neither a hero nor is she a villain. She is a young woman who has trained her whole life to become a raider for her island. She believes that what she does is justifiable, that in the raiding and pillaging she does with the other Daughters of Hel, she insures a prosperous life for her home and those she cares for. Those who suffer from their raids aren’t given a second thought. This line of thinking – as well as Carina’s penchant for rushing blindly in to situations – made it a bit difficult to like Carina as a character in the beginning. Thankfully, she grows and matures some as the story goes on though she does continue to be rash.

The three young men that kidnap Carina – Nik, Flavian, and Mateo – I found it difficult to connect with any of them. It isn’t that they aren’t bad characters, it’s just that I felt there wasn’t enough time truly dedicated to any one of them to get a good feel. With the bits and pieces of information sprinkled throughout the story, we the reader do come to understand each young man a bit better but I still feel more could have been given. Also, one particular character revelation (not stated due to spoilers) felt tacked on unnecessarily and was provided so late in the story as to not lend much in the way of sympathy.

Like I said, they aren’t terrible characters, I just didn’t feel any kind of real connection with any of them.

The one thing that I truly did not like was the way Steel Hand, Cold Heart ended. It was so abrupt it left me wondering if perhaps I had received a faulty e-copy. I am assured that this is indeed how the book ends, it just left me with a feeling of “That’s it? What happens next?” Of course, leaving the ending open like this opens up the possibility for a sequel or even series. I personally hope this is true because while I enjoyed reading Steel Hand, Cold Heart I also want more.

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