It’s not the worst idea to set a thriller in Norway’s past. 

Anyone watching big streaming services likely knows Vikings have been on a cultural tear the past decade or so, with onscreen offerings like “Vikings,” “Vikings: Valhalla,” “The Last Kingdom” and “The Northman,” not to mention the mythology Marvel introduced to the American masses with the Thor/Avengers films. 

Bay Area author Paul McHugh—the former longtime outdoors writer for the San Francisco Chronicle —was smart to set his World War II thriller “Splinter” (Bronzeville Books, 399 pages, $4.99 eBook, $19.99 paperback) during the German invasion of Norway in the early years of the war. Norway has become more fascinating by degrees lately, and historically—at least in the U.S.—not a lot of attention has been paid to Germany’s 1940 march to the north. 

Unlike the endless images dumped into our brains via Netflix, “Splinter,” of course, isn’t about giant pelt-wearing men swinging broadswords. It’s a much more relatable picture of a relatively peaceful, yet proud country getting pulled into Hitler’s claustrophobic scheme of European rule, and Norway’s reaction to it. 

“Splinter” breaks down the same splits among other populations conquered by an unstoppable German war machine. Should they fight? Or should they do as much as they can to preserve Norwegian lives and culture, by seeking a forced and accommodating neutrality, like its neighbor Sweden? 

McHugh magnifies the inner conflict by immediately focusing on one family, of which the main protagonist is 17-year-old Kristian Thorsen, the son of a proud anti-Nazi fisherman, whose brother Otto happens to be a leader in the country’s pro-Nazi movement.  

From the book’s early pages, the family is immediately at odds, creating a welcome tension for the reader that never really abates as the story progresses.  

The book feels meticulously researched, necessary when taking on such a lofty subject. McHugh does a wonderful job of dropping the reader right into the unforgiving freezing violence of Scandanavian weather, which clearly will kill our heroes if the Nazis don’t. Which adds a layer of toughness that strongly connects them to their ancestors, of course. 

Even fans of the best World War II spy thrillers could find McHugh’s story of Hitler invading Norway and the resistance it sparked fresh and compelling. 

Kristian is the brave protagonist from the get-go, even if he initially has no clue how to channel his feelings. Otto’s ward is 19-year Helene, an orphan under his guidance whose beauty and rescue of a German soldier make her a favorite among the Nazi occupiers. As she works an office job in their new military headquarters, she comes to understand more about the occupiers’ horrifying methods and comes to some brave decisions. 

Meanwhile Kristian, who Helene initially sees as little more than a fawning child, finds himself in a situation taking him to England, where he learns to be more than just a soldier. We see him grow into manhood and a thorn in the Nazi’s side. He and Helene’s paths invariably cross, as do their purposes.  

The last third of the book or so focuses on Kristian’s quest to get documents back to Britain that could alter the war’s momentum which, up until that point, is on the side of the Nazis, whose relentless nightly air raids are leaving London in ruins.  

“Splinter” is well-written with compelling characters, and McHugh does a good job of showing us the story, rather than just telling it.  

If there’s any shortcoming, it’s the absence of some nicely developed characters who disappear, giving the book a not quite explosive ending. Perhaps that was done to heighten the focus and urgency of Kristian completing his mission. Or perhaps McHugh is saving details to revisit in an upcoming book. I hope so, because I was left wanting more, almost always a good thing. 

To order the book from Amazon, visit Splinter – Paul McHugh.