I reckon this is Barbara Henderson’s best book [to date]. I didn’t want to pause my reading, but I had to. And I wasn’t even all that interested in the famous Lewis chessmen, but this was a pretty exciting tale, featuring suitably bloodthirsty ‘Norwegians’ and brave and pious early Christians, travelling the world hoping to save people.
As she admits, Barbara obviously made most of this up, apart from the chessmen and the guesswork of where they were carved and by whom. But I’m sold.
Kylan is a 12-year-old slave from Lewis, sold to a violent, but skilled craftsman in Trondheim, which is where he becomes part of the carving of the famous chess pieces. All he wants, though, is to escape so he can return to Lewis and hopefully find his mother, who at the same time was sold as a slave into another household.
He learns to carve, he talks his way into a perilous boat trip across the North Sea, there is danger and illness and a hard life in general. There are more than one lot of properly bad baddies, and knives are not merely used on the chessmen, but on mortal men as well.
It’s very much a men’s world, but Barbara manages to get the lots of women, and girls, into her story too. It makes you think. And her version of how the chessmen ended up where they did, is as plausible as the next one.
Now I want to travel to Lewis. No I don’t. It’s not the travel I’m keen on. But some aspects of Lewis appeal.