Tuesday 26 March 2013
The Lewis chessmen
As a girl, one of my favourite things to do was to visit the British Museum. I loved the slightly creepy horror of the Egypt room (too many illicit viewings of horror films!) but my heart has always belonged to small things- Japanese netsuke, for example or the Lewis chessmen. Museums were far less interactive and child friendly in the 70s, but the Lewis chessmen were perfect- at child eye height, you could see things that adults couldn't- the pompous expression on the Bishop's face, the tired droop of the Knight; the Queen with her hand to her face. They're wonderful objects. I could almost feel their smooth weight in the palm of my hand.
So I was delighted when two books recently featured the chessmen. The wonderful Francesca Simon of Horrid Henry fame's Sleeping Army is the story of Freya, living in an alternate version of Britain, where Christianity is a minor cult, and Viking beliefs are the mainstream religion.
Freya is caught between her warring, divorced parents: her mother is a priestess of the Viking religion, and her father, who has lost his job, is a security guard at the British Museum. Owing to a mix up, one night he has to take Freya to the museum with him, where, bored, she blows Heimdall's horn, and brings the statues to life. A brother and sister, Alfi and Roskva, Snot the Berserker and Sleipnir the eight legged horse. Together they end up in Asgard, only to find it horribly altered: the gods are dying, and Freya must go on a journey to save them. If she fails, she will be turned into a chess piece herself. On the way they meet giants, Loki the trickster god and travels to the Underworld. Freya is a believable protagonist: hardly heroic at times, she is definitely not the outdoor type, but grows into her role as the leader of a quest. I really enjoyed this, and recommend it to children 8+.
All the Doctor wanted was a game of chess. But he arrives on an island at the top of Scotland just at the wrong time: a mysterious fire that burns on top of the water is coming closer to the island, and a ship full of Vikings is transporting a princess to an unwilling marriage with a very unattractive King, and an island people with no way of defending themselves from either. And to top it all, the salt water seems to be playing havoc with the TARDIS.
This is a great adventure. If you know Jenny Colgan's romance novels, you'll know that she's a very funny writer with a great talent for deft characterisation, and she captures the whimsical and capricious nature of the Eleventh Doctor, as well as his love affair with humanity. Here he is without Amy and Rory, and rather lonely- and in keeping with the television series, has an affinity with a child. The Princess and Viking subplot is great too, and balances nicely with the Doctor's lone state. Although this is not marketed for children, I think a confident Who fan of 11+ would love this book.