L.A. Ashton is an author I’ve been following since I first found their fanfiction on Archive of Our Own many moons ago. I fell in love with the way they craft complex and gripping relationships between characters, and the sensuality of their writing stunned me. Ashton recently tweeted that they were looking for reviewers for their recently-released novella Valhalla, and of course I had to throw my hat in the ring. A chance to read more of Ashton's gorgeous writing and gush about it? Sign me up.
Valhalla begins with a Valkyrie named Sakuma who spends his immortal days leading the souls of vanquished warriors to Valhalla. His job goes without a hitch, until, during WWII, he meets Ishii Hiroshi, a Japanese soldier who stubbornly refuses Sakuma’s offer. As the two meet again and again, Ishii repeatedly toeing the line between life and death, Sakuma becomes obsessed with figuring out why this man refuses to take his rightful place in Valhalla. This beautiful, gritty romance explores how war and love can test a person’s willpower, sense of morality, and determination.
I will admit that it took me a little bit to get into Valhalla, but by the heart-pounding end, I was absolutely in love with these characters. I very nearly cried.
Sakuma, all gloriously angelic and powerful in his immortality, is surprisingly quirky and sweet. As soon as Ishii subverts Sakuma’s expectations for how the Valkyrie-human dynamics often go--
Valkyrie: Hi, hello, take my hand and come with me to Valhalla, an eternal paradise for worthy warriors, where all your suffering and mortal troubles will disappear.
Every other dying warrior: Why yes, that sounds most excellent.
Ishii: Um, shit, let’s not.
—Sakuma acts like he does around other Valkyries. You know, pouty, stubborn, curious, human, flawed. He’s shocked that this one human, of all the countless thousands he has previously escorted successfully to Valhalla, refuses his offer, and try though he does, Ishii dismisses him, and Sakuma has no choice but to leave.
And then there’s Ishii. Stubborn, grumpy, but also fiercely devoted to his cause, and desperate to do what he believes is right. He yearns to give all that he has to his country, his people, but there’s something that holds him back and makes him feel unworthy of accepting Sakuma’s offer.
For so much of the story, we see Sakuma’s perspective, and his increasing frustration about this stubborn human who clings desperately onto life, repeatedly risking his chances at entering Valhalla. Ashton quite brilliantly builds up the tension in the story as these two characters meet again and again, developing feelings for each other, while still holding the truth about Ishii’s refusal out like a carrot on a stick. Ishii and Sakuma’s growing desire becomes a tangible thing that shakes both men, made all the more desperate because the two can’t physically touch unless Ishii dies and agreed to go to Valhalla. I have very seldom rooted for the death of a protagonist, but it’s kind of impossible not to with the situation these two characters find themselves in.
(This next paragraph is a bit of a spoiler, and it goes into one of the major themes explored in this novella, so skip it if you want).
And then, finally, we learn Ishii’s reason for not taking Sakuma’s hand and joining him. Ishii has started to doubt. He follows orders, he fights his country’s battles, and he begins to doubt if his people are in the right as they battle China. He hears rumors of war atrocities committed by both sides, and he loses a little more of his resolve with each battle. His soul is growing weary of fighting a war he’s not sure his people should win.
I was surprised and moved by the questions that Ashton asks through her characters. What actually makes a warrior worthy, and can there be room for doubt in a warrior’s heart? Can someone who kills for a cause they don’t believe in be worthy of a place in Valhalla?
As for the world-building, I was intrigued by Ashton’s conception of Valhalla and the Valkyries. The idea that the Valkyries had to grow in number as wars grew and spread makes a lot of sense, especially that Valkyries would be recruited from the warriors who live in Valhalla. The glimpses we see of Ishii’s life amidst WWII is harsh and, in many cases, quite lonely. There are numerous violent battlefield scenes, but I was especially struck by the quieter, desperate moments spent in medical tents, or hospital rooms. Moments when we, and Sakuma, see Ishii truly vulnerable, and mortal.
I think my largest, and only, criticism of the novella is that I would have loved to see everything about it—the backstories of the characters, the mythology, the questions about justice and morality amidst war—deepened, and expanded. That’s not to say that this story isn’t gorgeous as it is. I meant it when I said that by the end of the story, my heart was aching in the best way possible and I was desperate for the resolution. This story works as a novella because it’s so character-driven, with such a primary focus on the romance and the building tension of whether or not Ishii will make it into Valhalla. It’s a beautiful taste of what Ashton is capable of, and it left me super excited to see what new stories they have up their sleeve.
And, by the way, did I mention that this story is super queer? Because it is, it’s gorgeous, and the characters’ queerness isn’t once questioned or linked to the conflict. That’s one aspect of Ashton’s writing that I always find to be super gratifying and affirming.
You can buy Valhalla at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Ninestar Press, and Kobo.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.