PRIOR to reading The Chessmen Thief I had not known anything about its story of origin, where the idea of it came from and the elements of truth that were woven through the story but I was promoted by this to research it.
This is of course what any good book inspired by a part of history should do, particularly those aimed towards children and young people, as effectively combining an element of learning with the enjoyment and wonder of storytelling is at the heart of the kinds of stories.
This particular story comes from a discovery of a set of chess pieces in the Isle of Lewis in 1831, which would have perhaps been less unusual if it were not for the fact that they appeared to have been made in medieval Norway.
There have been many interpretations of this, studies of the pieces themselves and the materials they are made from to attempt to narrow down exactly what their story could be however there is still no certainty on this matter.
In a way it would be wonderful to know more about this one, of many, mysteries about the past, but in another I am almost glad that we don’t. These chess pieces, without their ambiguity of origin, could not have inspired Barbara Henderson to write a children’s book such as this one full of imagination and adventure. I’m grateful for that.
For this is a book with the perfect combination of ancient Norse and Scottish culture, of intrigue and crime and the inherent magic of folk tales and poetry through which storytelling became what it is today.
The main character is 12 year old Kylan who for around the past four years has been captive. When he was originally captured from Scotland his mother was with him, but the two were separated and while she was taken back to Scotland, Kylan was left in a workshop of carvers in Trondheim, Norway.
Over the years, though he longed for his mother and his own country, his own home and freedom and spoke Gaelic quietly to himself, he became used to his surroundings.
Every night he would watch his cruel master Gunnar and his team carve beautiful projects, and though he was only ever trusted to clean, he learned the art.
The story begins as an archbishop visits the shop and commissions a gift to take on a visit to Scotland, the team soon realise that to make the grand chess sets they’ve offered him they will need their young slave to help.
He seizes this opportunity and sees it as his first chance not only to improve this skill but to go back to Scotland. Earning the favour of the archbishop’s man, he finds himself joining them on their journey as a translator of Gaelic and to repair the chessmen.
Along his journey to find freedom, and who he is and hopes to one day be as a person Kylan encounters a number of twists and turns but remains courageous and hopeful throughout.