The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson

With Punch, the only children’s novel by Barbara Henderson I’ve yet to read but which is sitting waiting on my TBR, I am thrilled to be part of the blog tour for her latest book The Chessmen Thief. My grateful thanks to Antonia Wilkinson for inviting me to participate and for sending me a copy of The Chessmen Thief in return for an honest review. I’m delighted to share that review today along with a wonderful guest post on writing action scenes from Barbara.

The Chessmen Thief was published by Cranachan’s imprint Pokey Hat on 29th April 2021 and is available for purchase in all the usual places including directly from the publisher here.

To see why I love Barbara’s writing so much you can find:

My review of Fir For Luck here (also one of my books of the year in 2016).

A smashing guest post from Barbara about Fir For Luck publication day here.

Another super post from Barbara about why a book launch matters to celebrate Punch here.

A guest post from Barbara about nature and my review of Wilderness Wars here.

A guest post about novels and novellas and my review of Black Water here.

My review of The Siege of Caerlaverock alongside a guest post from Barbara about Heraldic poetry here. The Siege of Caerlaverock was also one of my 2020 Books of the Year.

The Chessmen Thief

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.

The Chessmen Thief

Action scenes and how to write them

A guest post by Barbara Henderson

The final edits for The Chessmen Thief were complete. My editor and I had spent almost two hours on the final phone call, the one where we haggle over hyphens and discuss semi-colons, sometimes removing them only to put them back in. The book was a wrap. I leaned back into my chair and asked her: ‘Now that we’re done, can you tell me – which bit of the book do you actually like best?’

She thought for a moment. ‘The action scenes,’ she answered simply.

‘Me too.’

It really is strange – I am not particularly drawn to action films, but in children’s books, these pages of increased pace and raised stakes are essential to engage today’s young readers. Moreover, their magic seems to reel in readers like me in the same way. An action scene works like a quick turbocharge of energy, giving the plot new momentum.

I am not suggesting that I am an expert at all – there are far more experienced authors for children around. But I am more than happy to share what I have learned so far. Ladies and gentlemen, according to my limited wisdom, here is how an action scene should work. I am drawing on chapters 13 and 14 of The Chessmen Thief to show what I mean. 😊

Number 1: Come from a place of calm before introducing the threat.

When the wind picks up and carries us in the exact direction we want to go, we step away from the oars and relax. I climb the first level of the mast where I like it the best. No one judges me there or asks me questions.

Until I see it in the distance. Unmistakeable: another vessel, making straight for us.

Number2: Take a moment to describe your character’s reaction. It works best if the other characters do not recognise the danger. This technique is called dramatic irony – the reader understands more than the characters do, heightening the tension.

My stomach tumbles and my lungs do something they have never done before: refuse to inhale and exhale. Instead, a strange kind of panting is all I am capable of, with the weight of all the oceans in the world on my heart.

‘Raiders!’ I shout, but all that emerges from my throat is a croak. The men below are singing and sharing a quick horn of ale before their muscle power is required again, and a couple are relieving themselves over the side of the boat. ‘Raiders!’ I yell, a little louder, but still no one pays me any heed.

Number 3: Up the jeopardy. The reader needs to understand what is at stake.

As the ship approaches, I can see the straggly beards of men who have lived long apart from any kind of company. Their swords are rusty but sharp. There are spears, axes and halberds, and all manner of weapons.

At the front, almost leaning over the hull of their galley, are three raiders with coils of rope around their bodies, ready to throw weighted hooks across—and only now do I see what the front of their ship is made of! It’s not water glistening on the wood—it’s reinforced with iron spikes and they mean to ram us! ‘TURN THE SHIP!’ I yell down with all my might.

Number 4: Give your protagonist something to do.

Suddenly, I am pulled off my feet backwards, the huge hand of the Jarl on my shoulder. ‘Here, boy!’ He thrusts something into my hand, slicing into my palm a little as he does: a dagger, and oh Lord, it is sharp!

Number 5: The best action scenes have an active protagonist.

With a terrible clang, a huge metal hook lands over the side of our ship, a rope attached. It tautens almost immediately: the raiders are pulling our ship towards theirs, weapons in hand.

Our men scatter and take refuge, but something possesses me to do exactly the opposite. Darting to avoid the missiles and arrows, I run towards the hooks.

This, I am sure, is why the good Lord provided the dagger. I slash at the hook-rope attaching the ships to one another.

Number 6: You can’t beat a cliff-hanger.

With a final gasping effort, this rope, too, snaps. The enemy ship is only two horse-lengths away. Soon a warrior of strength and stature will be able to jump. Oh no: they are readying themselves!

But then something happens that I have not foreseen. Behind me, there is a commotion; a box is knocked over, heavy footfalls thud on the deck. And then, right past me, Jarl Magnus raises his shield as he runs, mounts the gunwale and, literally, leaps into the air over the whirling waves.

Number 7: Know when to stop.

Relentless action scenes can be exhausting to read. Follow any action scene with a chapter or so of calm – it’s an opportunity for deeper characterisation and perhaps moments of light-heartedness too. Your readers need a break. Let them have it! My protagonist Kylan is going to spend the next chapter learning to play chess!


And what a magnificent job he does of that Barbara. Thank you so much for this wonderful guest post. I think you’ve given Linda’s Book Bag readers a real taste of The Chessmen Thief. It also helps put my review into conext!

My Review of The Chessmen Thief

Thrall Kylan’s life is about to change.

Barbara Henderson wastes no time in plunging her readers into a fast paced, action packed, thrilling story that had my heart beating fast even if I am half a century older than the target audience for The Chessmen Thief. With fights and fugitives, enslavement and escapes, this book is an absolute cracker of a read.

One of the aspects that always impresses me in a Barbara Henderson children’s book is the absolute authority of her writing, arising out of assiduous research, and her wonderful ability to present her narrative at the perfect pitch for her target audience without patronising them. The author is unafraid to include difficult issues like death but does so with such a deft touch that The Chessmen Thief feels organic and natural, allowing for consideration of feelings and emotions in a safe environment for young readers. I confess The Chessman Thief brought a tear to my eye as well as making my heart thump! The narrative voice is also perfect for the era and yet is simultaneously accessible so that there’s a vivid sense of history behind the story too.

The plot of The Chessmen Thief is so exciting. It races along, sweeping the reader with it, so that even the most reluctant young reader couldn’t fail to be entranced. With the Viking myths and legends underpinning the narrative, The Chessmen Thief deserves its place in the canon of storytelling every bit as much as those traditional tales. Much is often said about twist and turns in narratives, but there was a point in The Chessmen Thief when I was stopped in my tracks at an unexpected moment that matches any adult book I’ve read.

I loved meeting Kylan and watching his development. He is by no means perfect, as the title of the book might suggest, but my word he’s vivid, vibrant, realistic and multi-faceted. Through Kylan Barbara Henderson gives status to the young, the underdog and the oppressed, providing hope for those who feel similarly diminished in society making The Chessmen Thief an important as well as an entertaining book. It’s educational too, with a glossary of terms and author’s note so that the story could be used in all manner of ways to develop vocabulary, history, geography, research and literacy in a school or home environment. I envisage that the chess theme coupled with the smashing illustrations to begin each chapter will lead to an increased interest in playing the game amongst readers of all ages. Other characters are equally as compelling. I think middle grade children in particular would find immense enjoyment in acting out scenes from the book; in being Jarl Magnus or Asleifsson because they feel so real.

As well as discovering Kylan’s personality, I also loved the themes woven through The Chessmen Thief. Trust and betrayal, family and belonging, religion and corruption, violence and diplomacy, all provide depth and quality that is, quite frankly, astounding.

The Chessmen Thief is an absolutely excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed it because not only is it skilfully written, dramatic and compelling, it made me remember what it was like to be young again, to be completely captivated by reading and to find a childlike joy in a book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

About Barbara Henderson

Barbara Henderson has lived in Scotland since 1991, somehow acquiring an MA in English Language and Literature, a husband, three children and a shaggy dog along the way. Having tried her hand at working as a puppeteer, relief librarian and receptionist, she now teaches Drama part-time at secondary school.

Writing predominantly for children, Barbara won the Nairn Festival Short Story Competition in 2012, the Creative Scotland Easter Monologue Competition in 2013 and was one of three writers shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize 2013. In 2015, wins include the US-based Pockets Magazine Fiction Contest and the Ballantrae Smuggler’s Story Competition.

Follow Barbara on Twitter @scattyscribbler or Instagram for more information, and read her blog. You’ll also find her author page on Facebook.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

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