Draugr by Arthur Slade

Front cover of Draugr by Arthur SladeSlade balances a portrayal of modern—if rural—Canada with ancient Scandinavian folklore, creating a tale that will engage both young adults seeking an accessible chill and fans of sagas.

Fourteen-year-old Sarah Asmundson, her twin Michael, and her cousin Angie have been sent north from Missouri, USA, to a small village in Manitoba, Canada, to stay with her grandfather for a fortnight. She expects the scariest part of it to be her grandfather’s tales from when her ancestors lived in Iceland; however, when events start to match his latest tale, Sarah realises it might be more than just a scary story.

Slade skilfully transplants the ancient Scandinavian tale of draugr, a person returning from the dead for vengeance, to the modern world; while mobile phones and cars offer the characters advantages pre-Christian Icelanders lacked, Slade also draws on the reliance modern people place on technology, making situations where it fails all the more fear-inducing.

The prose is uncomplicated without being simplistic, and is free of swearing or visceral horrors, making it suitable for younger readers. However, the book also includes brief mentions of things from which more experienced readers might infer other threats, preventing the horror from feeling insipid.

While the novel is its own story aimed at young adults, and requires no knowledge of Icelandic literature, readers who are familiar with sagas might notice that—as Slade has characters realise—certain things echo Chapter 14 of Grettir’s Saga, including a number of the names; depending on reader’s preferences this might seem like a pleasing homage, and unfeasible series of coincidences, or a sign of some underlying greater plot.

Indeed, as the first in a series, this book hints strongly at Sarah being more than simply a plucky teen. However, although Slade does leave certain questions unanswered, the main plot and a number of individual character arcs are brought to a satisfactory conclusion, meaning readers are unlikely to feel they are left hanging.

As might be expected of a young adult novel, Sarah puts herself forward and solves a problem that the adults are trying to keep from her and failing to solve; however, unlike some YA tales, this is not due to adults being inept fools. Instead, she succeeds through a mix of gumption, good ideas, and building on what adults have done. Slade pairs this with a realistic fear of the unknown and an awareness she is out of her depth. Thus, even readers who generally find the trope of children saving the day a touch unfeasible are likely to find her a solid protagonist.

Slade’s supporting cast are similarly strong, with young characters displaying a childlike approach to life without being irritatingly childish. This produces a pleasing symmetry where adults have the experience to handle more situations but are limited by their awareness of risks, whereas teenagers act with less thought and thus both land in deeper trouble and seize more opportunities.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I recommend it to readers of any age seeking a scary story that relies on strong characters and real emotion rather than a single trick.

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