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  • Title: The Chessmen Thief
  • Author: Barbara Henderson
  • Publisher: Cranachan Publishing
  • Publication Date: 29 April 2021

Copy received from publisher for review purposes.

Description:

Win. Lose. Survive.

I was the boy with a plan. Now I am the boy with nothing.

From the moment 12-year-old Kylan hatches a plan to escape from his Norse captors, and return to Scotland to find his mother, his life becomes a dangerous game.


The precious Lewis Chessmen―which he helped carve―hold the key to his freedom, but he will need all his courage and wit to triumph against Sven Asleifsson, the cruellest Viking in the realm.


One false move could cost him his life.

Barbara Henderson has woven a thrilling origin story around the enduring mystery of the Lewis Chessmen, their creation in Norway, and how they ended up buried in the Hebrides before being discovered on Lewis in 1831

My Thoughts:

I have been a huge fan of Barbara Henderson’s writing from the moment I discovered the wonderful and magical worlds she creates in her books. There is something truly special about the way that Barbara writes and brings her characters to life, inviting the reader to see the story through the eyes her young protagonists and experience the often convoluted, confusing world they are surrounded by. Combine this with intricately detailed settings and expert plotting and you’ve got a book that appeals to readers of all ages.

12-year-old Kylan is a character that readers cannot help but like, he’s brave and strong, he finds courage and takes chances. But he’s also a young lad who’s been taken from his home, his family and held captive by raiding Norsemen. Life has changed drastically for Kylan, he no longer enjoys the life of freedom, instead his place in the world is as thrall in a Norse workshop with craftsmen. It isn’t an easy life, he works hard and has earned a level of respect, albeit grudgingly from some of the craftsmen. The narrative has readers experiencing life in the workshop with Kylan, seeing the big, powerful men around him and contrasting this with the intricate carvings and crafts produced by the hands of these masters. It’s hard not to become lost in this world, watching ideas taking shape and becoming carved items, being awed at the skill poured into chessmen that are created and falling down a rabbit hole on the internet looking up images of the carved chessmen.

Locations are a key part of any Barbara Henderson book, and The Chessmen Thief brings locations to life as if they were almost characters in their own right. I felt that I travelled with the characters, I could see Trondheim through Kylan’s eyes and experience life in the trading post, marvel at the cathedral and imagine the workshop high on the hill. I could feel my stomach rolling and lurching as the longship ploughed through the seas on the way to the Hebridies … to say I was glad when they reached land was an understatement! But what a journey it was, fraught with danger, drama, and a wonderful glimpse into character that had been cloaked in mystery. I don’t want to say too much about the locations as I have a magnificent guest post from Barbara to share about the setting of The Chessmen Thief and her travels around them.

I would highly recommend this book to readers of all ages, it’s a superb story that carries the reader off into a world of adventure and danger, it allows you to explore new worlds and makes you want to learn more about the places and the chess sets that were carved and travelled so far.

Landscape: The setting of the Chessmen Thief

As if the mystery of the Lewis Chessmen were not enough, the landscapes of the Western Isles and Orkney have a magnetic draw all of their own. I will never forget the first time I arrived on Lewis with my family. We traced our way south to the Isle of Harris, and I maintain that the landscape there, barren though it may be, is the native territory for stories.

It is in these wild, remote stretches that touching the past is tantalisingly possible. I am willing to bet that much of the shoreline has changed very little since the Lewis Chessmen came to rest on the island. I have returned several times since.

In the writing of The Chessmen Thief, I was also lucky enough to be able to hark back to a summer trip to Norway, long ago when our oldest was a baby. Unfortunately, we never got as far north as Trondheim, but I had a feel for how the land lay, how the light has such a clarity, how the mist lingered on the fjords.

The book begins in Trondheim. The city is the most populous in Norway now, but it was established in 997 as a trading post. That is still at the heart of how I portray the place in the Chessmen Thief. It served as the capital of Norway, but I don’t explicitly say this in the book as the characters would all know, and therefore have no need to mention it. At the time of the book’s events in the 1150s, a new Archdiocese had been established and this serves as a catalyst for the events in the book. In my story is situated

Trondheim, its trading posts and its iconic cathedral are located by the sea fjord, but the workshop in my story is situated on an elevation above it (I did research this) where the light lingers longest, affording the craftsmen a longer working day. Kylan, the slave and hero of The Chessmen Thief, looks out daily over the sea and is reminded of his home: The Western Isles where he was abducted in a raid. He often runs errands to the trading station, purchases raw materials and watches out for new ships coming into the Fjord.

When he finally contrives a way of travelling back to the Hebrides, he spends time out at sea under the wheel of stars. I did have to use my imagination here – what would it feel like to be tossed by the waves in a longship? How terrifying to lose sight of land? How much more terrifying to be attacked by another ship?

I reached Orkney. I had visited before, again, when our children were young. It was flatter than I had imagined. Luckily, there was an opportunity to visit again with friends, blissfully unaware that lockdown was only a month away. The seas were suitably stormy. We didn’t see a whale (as Kylan does), but we arrived in one piece and I set about exploring. The Earl’s Palace ruins were still standing in Kirkwall, as was the massive St Magnus Cathedral. Should I accommodate my characters here? I decided against it. Ophir and the Earl’s Bu were the more likely place for a bunch of ailing, fevered sailors to recover, out of the view of the rich and powerful who could present a threat to their safety. Apart from that, there were records of a drinking hall at Orphir in Orneyinga Saga. Orphir it was. I visited the ruins, looked out over the Scapa Flow and imagined ambushes.

Onwards to the Isle of Lewis. I defy anyone to find a more beautiful, rugged and dramatic stretch of coastline than the west coast of Lewis. I would have loved to have sailed along it, but I had to make do with the road instead, taking me past an ancient broch, the Standing Stones of Callanish and the towards the Uig peninsula. Inland, the island resembles a barren moonscape with lochans and rocks covered in lichen, but the combination of light and sea against a rocky and grassy backdrop of shelving hillside provided the perfect setting for a chase. Lewis is a threatening, forbidding place in the book, but glorious too. The Isle of Harris to the south represents shelter and finally, safety. Of all the writing in The Chessmen Thief, I am proudest of the concluding epilogue, set on Harris.

The book needs the Chessmen, and their historical context. It needs characters to root for and dangers to threaten what they hold dear. But I think this book would be nothing without the north wind of the Atlantic blowing in your hair, without the rocks and crevices of the Lewis coast, without lochs and fjords, endless beaches, and trickling springs.

Let the book take you there. And then explore the stunning backdrop to this adventure as soon as it can be safely done. You won’t regret it.


by Barbara Henderson
Barbara and the Chessmen

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