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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Arrowhead by Ruth Eastham review Vikings, magic and murder mystery

Lewis Chessmen Class wars … Eastham's schoolmates become violent savages under a Viking curse. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Two-thirds of the way through Ruth Eastham's powerful new thriller the story's hero, 13-year-old Jack, enters a museum and stands before the dragon prow of a restored Viking ship, gripped by its beauty and menace, his skin prickling with fear. At that point I was gripped myself. Jack is desperately searching for a way to defeat an ancient evil, but I was simply desperate to know what was going to happen next.

The museum is in a Norwegian town, a place to which Jack has been brought by his Norwegian mum after the accidental death of his English father. Grief has tipped Jack's mum into mental illness, and Jack isn't doing very well either. He's struggling with grief, too, and worrying about his mum, but he also has to deal with being the new boy in school. Jack chooses not to join the class bullies, and stands up for their victim instead, a boy called Skuli, a choice that has momentous consequences.

For Skuli has made a discovery that he wants to share with his new friend. The local glacier is shrinking, uncovering the preserved body of a boy murdered more than a thousand years ago, in the Viking age. Before he died, the boy carved a warning in runes on the ice with the mysterious and clearly magical arrowhead of the title. Its reappearance, however, is definitely A Bad Thing. Before long, Jack realises they have unleashed an ancient curse that could lead to the destruction of everything he loves.

The curse works on both people and the natural world, turning Jack's schoolmates into the kind of violent savages that would give the wild boys in Lord of the Flies a run for their money, while also causing storms, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions. There are time-slips, too: Jack suddenly finds himself in the past and a terrifying ghost warrior breaks into the present. And there is plenty of cool Viking stuff – magic runes and spooky ravens, quotes from Beowulf and references to Odin.

You could say that it's all been done before. Fans of Alan Garner will certainly feel they're on familiar territory – an ancient curse, contemporary children, creatures of myth and legend erupting into the modern world, a great battle between The Good Guys and The Forces of Darkness. There's nothing original, either, about other elements of the story – the struggles of a new boy in school, the impact of grief on a family, even an underdog called Jack taking on a much bigger opponent.

But it's done with terrific verve and great skill, the action zipping along with plenty of cliffhangers and surprises. A complex backstory can be a curse itself in this kind of tale, with characters delivering large chunks of exposition to each other, but here it's all handled well, information being imparted in the right amounts to keep the mystery alive. The language is crisp, precise and unshowy and better for it, a hard-edged prose that does a solid job and sometimes soars.

There's a sketchiness about the characters, but that's often the case in stories with a mythological feel where action predominates. I'd also be a bit worried about the effect the story might have on school parties who visit Viking exhibitions at museums. No spoilers, but the climax is thrilling and can be summed up in two words – "Viking funeral".

• Tony Bradman's most recent book is an anthology, Stories of World War One. To order Arrowhead for £6.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

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