Judy is living a lie. At school she must pretend that her father is still inhabiting the houseboat they share, when in reality he left for Stockholm over three months ago in search of his friend Rashid who he feared was in danger. William, too, has been abandoned-by his feckless mother who finds a trip to Spain with her latest boyfriend more palatable than life with a son who has special needs. When William tries to hide from the school bullies an intriguing key he has found under the roots of an ancient tree, Judy comes to his defence. And when the bullies seek vicious retaliation the following day she flees, finding unexpected refuge in the house of the very unusual Andrew Balderson.
From this strange meeting springs a journey to Sweden in Mr Balderson’s ancient van, with William as an initially undiscovered stowaway. When they crash and almost die in the harshest of Swedish winter nights they are found by Stefan and cared for by him and his grandmother and the significance of their journey, the key and, indeed, Mr Balderson himself, is gradually revealed.
This is an accomplished and enthralling book which operates ambitiously on many levels and delivers many surprises. Ibbotson takes the reader with him in exploring the nature of attachments, a tolerance of the unusual, a vivid evocation of wild landscapes and the distinctive rhythms of very different lives. The weave of Norse mythology through the fabric of the novel both enlightens and entertains.