Review: The Chessmen Thief

The Lewis Chessmen have been enchanting those who encounter them since they were discovered on a Hebridean beach nearly 200 years ago. In her new book, Barbara Henderson channels their timeless appeal and shares it with new generation of readers, who are set to be captivated. In its own way, this story is as much the work of a master craftsman as the carvings themselves.

The Chessmen Thief follows 12-year-old Kylan, a slave in a Norwegian ivory workshop, who longs to return to his mother and the island from which he was taken. When the Archbishop and his enigmatic advisor, Jarl Magnus, arrive looking for gifts to take on a long voyage, a collection of chess figures is commissioned, and Kylan sees a chance to escape.

This dramatic story explores the origins of the 12th century game pieces and asks how they came to be on the Isle of Lewis, imagining an action-packed role for Kylan as his fate is bound to theirs. It feels epic in its reach, from bustling Trondheim to Orkney and the standing stones of the windswept Western Isles, breathing life into events and people from centuries ago with imagination and flair.

After a journey fraught with danger, the climax of Kylan’s adventure had me biting my nails to the quick. It could not have been more apt that – in contrast to its simmering background of Viking violence – the battle that matters most is a game of chess.

What sets this story apart is not the factual details (though these are impressive) but the human ones, which connect us with characters from centuries ago as easily as if they were in the next room. Kylan is wonderfully relatable – he’s determined, idealistic and street-smart, but he makes dangerous mistakes – and it is heart-warming to follow him as he forms unlikely friendships and benefits from kindness in unexpected places.

The Chessmen Thief, by Barbara Henderson (Cranachan)

Read our Seven Stories Q&A with Barbara

  • Roaring Reads was invited to review The Chessmen Thief as part of the blog tour for the book’s launch. Check out the other participants’ blogs for more features and reviews.

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