Riddle Of The Runes by Janina Ramirez

The Blurb On The Back:

Alva rushes through the trees in the dead of night with her sniffer wolf, Fen.  Being out alone when there’s a kidnapper on the loose is reckless, but if she ever wants to be an investigator like her Uncle Magnus, she’ll need to be first to the crime scene.

But what Alva discovers raises more questions than it answers, drawing her into a dangerous search for truth, and for treasure … 

You can order Riddle Of The Runes by Janina Ramirez from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

12-year-old Alva lives in Kilsgard with her mother Brianna, her Uncle Magnus and his pet raven Href, her younger brother Ivan and her pet wolf Fenrir.  Her father, Bjorn, went a-Viking to Constantinople over a year ago to make his fortune but still has not returned and the family are beginning to fear the worst.

One night in the dead of winter Alva is woken by a loud knocking at the door.  Kilsgard’s leader, Jarl Erik needs Uncle Magnus’s help and although he tells Alva to stay at home, she can’t resist following them to listen at the door and find out what’s going on.  She learns that a monk called Edmund from the monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria and his friend, Wiglaf of Bamburgh have been searching for treasure on the nearby mountain of Giant’s Finger using the clues set out on a casket that they took from a drunken Viking while they were travelling overseas.  However they were attacked while camping out on the mountain and Wiglaf was dragged away and now Edmund has come to Jarl Erik for sanctuary. 

Even though the monk is strange (he believes in only one god rather than many, as the Vikings do), Magnus and the Jarl know that they cannot allow someone to attack people on their mountain and Magnus wants to act now to find out who this attacker is to rescue Wiglaf.  Alva knows that Magnus will never solve this mystery without her help and, in order to get ahead of her uncle (and maybe even find the treasure herself), decides that she and Fenrir will go up the mountain now to try and find some clues.  She doesn’t know that her search for the truth has ties to her family and will put everyone she loves in danger …

Janina Ramirez’s first novel for children aged 9+ is a sturdy historical adventure set in Viking times with a determined and rebellious female main character and featuring moody and evocative illustrations by David Wyatt.  However, the writing is stiff in places, the mystery elements rely on backstory that wasn’t previously mentioned and there are a couple of anachronisms that threw me out (although children probably won’t notice).

I picked this up because we’re in a golden age for mystery books aimed at children and I do like a good Viking story.  I’ll begin by saying that I really liked Alva as a character – she’s spirited and determined and a little foolhardy, but smart enough to know when she’s gone too far.  Ramirez does well at showing the friendship between her and her wolf Fenrir, although I did wish that we’d seen her interact with some kids of her own age in the book as well just to round her out more and put her in context for other children of the period (do they think about being shield maidens and investigators or are they more traditional in their mindset?).  

Ramirez also does well at showing the relationship between Alva, her mother and Magnus and the tensions that have been developing since her father left.  Again, I wanted more of this – particularly as you later discover that Brianna was born and lived in Ireland before meeting Bjorn and was a Christian herself and I felt that this could have given some context and fed into the investigation with Edmund the monk given that Ramirez makes a point of showing how strange the Vikings find him and his beliefs.  I liked the way that Brianna tries to rein Alva’s instincts in because she’s worried about her and what it could mean for her in their society and again, would have liked to see this developed more.  I should also mention David Wyatt’s illustrations, which are dark and evocative – particularly his illustration of a sacrifice around a bonfire, which is eerie and sinister.

As an adventure it works okay but there isn’t really enough jeopardy for Alva or her uncle to create any stakes or sense of threat.  Similarly, the mystery element really doesn’t work at all given that the key revelations come very late in and rely on Alva and her family suddenly remembering or revealing backstory that reveals the next development.  This is particularly significant with the revelation of who the attacker is and their motives – for me it came out of nowhere and seemed a bit of a cheat – but I did like how Alva’s feeling towards what should be done with the antagonist differed from her Uncle and mother and I think it will make children think about what they would do because Alva isn’t necessarily in the right even though her position is understandable.

I was a little disappointed in the character of Sigrunn the seer, a one-eyed elderly woman who tells the town when they need to make sacrifices to the Gods and who sets herself against Magnus and his investigation as she thinks Loki is behind the current shenanigans.  I’ve become more sensitive about how disability is portrayed in children’s fiction in recent years after reading what some disability campaigners have written about it so having a blind woman set up as a potential bad guy who acts out of spite and ignorance didn’t sit right with me, plus she’s the only woman with power in the town and given that there’s some talk in the book about the role of women, it would have been nice to have drawn that out more – although maybe this will happen in later books.  I was also thrown out by some anachronisms within the text, particularly when Alva says “okay” (which didn’t exist until the 19th century) because while I don’t expect complete historical accuracy, given that Ramirez is a medievalist I’d have liked a bit more feel for the time (although I should say that I doubt that kids would notice or realise).

All in all, I thought this was an okay read and I cared about Alva and her family enough to want to see what happens next, particularly as the book ends with a set up for the sequel.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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