How to be a Hero by Cat Weldon, illustrated by Katie Kearney

There are certain aspects of the school curriculum that children seem to be endlessly fascinated by such as the Ancient Egyptian and Greek civilisations, and the Vikings. To a large extent, this is down to their mythology – who doesn’t love a story full of gods with their incredible powers who interfere in the lives of us mere mortals? Having loved the Percy Jackson stories and after recently starting on the Who Let The Gods Out? series, I was curious when I spotted this new title on Twitter and was lucky enough to be sent a copy after I stuck up my hand for one.

Having read the Neil Gaiman adaptation of many of the old Norse myths a few months ago, as one of my increasingly rare adult reads, I was more familiar with the likes of Odin, Frigg and Loki than I would otherwise have been before I started this, but prior knowledge is not needed as a great deal of the beliefs of our Viking forebears is covered right from the very start of the book.

For anyone who knows nothing about Viking beliefs, essentially humans inhabit Midgard – one of nine worlds which together are found at different levels as part of an enormous magical tree called Yggdrasil. Luckily for us, there is a map to show us how these lands are set out, which is immediately followed by a map of Midgard, which is where we first meet Whetstone.

In the Great Hall of Krud, a feast is in progress where there is much eating and drinking going on. A nervous Whetstone is trying to pluck up courage to steal the treasured cup of Chief Awfulrick under the guidance of more experienced thief Light Finger. Also keen to steal the cup is Light Finger’s companion Vali but he is told that not only has he had his chance, and it is now the younger boy’s turn, but that Light Finger has spent years tracking it down and he is not prepared to leave Krud without it.

While Whetstone successfully manages to take the cup and hastens to make his escape, far above him in Asgard is Lotta – a trainee Valkyrie, Class Three. Desperate to make enough progress in her training to be promoted to Class Two, Lotta and some of her fellow trainees find themselves despatched to Midgard with the task of collecting fallen warriors to transport them to Valhalla – the Great Hall of chief god Odin where they will drink and feast as they wait to take part in the battle at the end of the world.

Now in possession of the cup, Whetstone is somewhat taken aback to discover that it not only talks, but has a liking for speaking in poetry – more specifically, limericks. Deciding to head to the city of Cloggibum with a view to becoming a famous thief, Whetstone finds himself hiding on a farm belonging to Ivor the Nose Grinder in order to avoid capture by Awfulrick who is in hot pursuit. After burying the cup and marking the spot carefully, Whetstone seeks sanctuary in a stable but is knocked unconscious by being clubbed over the head before he can do anything else.

It is here that Lotta finds him after becoming separated from the other Valkyries. Kicking herself for having missed the battle she should’ve attended, she decides to pass Whetstone off as a fallen hero and takes him back to Asgard on her horse. Waking up in her bed before letting himself out of her house and wandering around, a confused Whetstone looks about to try to establish where he is and is shocked to peer into the window of another house to see Vali discussing him with what appears to be the other boy’s family.

When Lotta comes across Whetstone, she explains he is in Asgard and she will need to return him. Before she is able to, two trainee Valkyries come close to discovering him but are prevented by taking any action by the intervention of Loki who demands the cup for himself. After Loki threatens to reveal Lotta’s part in Whetstone’s presence in Asgard, which would lead to her banishment, Lotta and Whetstone agree to fetch the cup and are given a day in which to do so.

Before they can do anything else, the pair must make their way from Asgard to Midgard by climbing down through Yggdrasil – a journey that places them in even further danger when they attract the attention of a dragon. Can Lotta and Whetstone make their way back to Ivor the Nose Grinder’s farm in one piece and will they be able to find the cup there? Will they give the cup to Loki if they find it and just why does he want it so desperately?

As the title of this book might suggest, being a hero does not come naturally to Whetstone and he is in need of a great deal of support in order for him to become one. At the start of the story, he has had a rough time after being fostered by a woman he refers to throughout the book as Angry Bogey and is looking for an easy way to make himself famous and rich through thieving. As the story unfolds and he starts to look upon Lotta as a friend, he sees that there is merit to looking out for her as well as himself and starts to make progress towards being a hero.

It is incredibly cheering to me that in books such as this with a male protagonist and a female sidekick that these days almost without exception they form a partnership of equals. As someone brought up with heroes such as The Doctor in Dr Who, who always had an assistant whose main role seemed to be to be helpless and scream a lot, I have seen that gradual shift from eye-candy to brave and bold kick-ass characters who are unafraid to join in with the action and am delighted by it. Although she is concerned that her abilities as a Valkyrie are lacking, it is very clear that Lotta is brave, with a strong sense of right and wrong and I am hopeful that as she gains in confidence and experience, with Whetstone’s support, she will bloom.

With this being the first in a trilogy (the second, The Land of Lost Things is due summer 2021), a great deal of the book is taken up with familiarising us with the main characters and their developing relationship. Now that that groundwork has been carried out, it will be very interesting to see how the story progresses in the middle book – always a pivotal point in a three-book sequence. I for one will be keeping an eager eye open for that. Until then, enormous thanks must go to MacMillan Publishing for my gifted copy. An epic 5 out of 5 stars.

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