I recently had the opportunity to read David Pilling’s book “Reiver” and I snatched it with both hands. I often see David Pilling’s books linked with mine on Amazon – not sure who buys which first, but we seem to appeal to many of the same readers! – and having read this novella, set in the Scottish Border country in the year AD 1569, I can see why. I have a strong suspicion that one lolloping russet-haired North Country boy would fit right in….
It’s got it all going on, for a novella. Action, intrigue, love and politics – all in 190 pages.in fact, my main problem with Reivers is that it wasn’t long enough – not only in that I wanted to know more, but that I was left with a strong sense of questions unanswered at the end, as if this was a prequel to a full novel.
There’s a strong sense of the Robin Hood about Richie o’the Bow, the young hero – he’s a very young hero, aged all of sixteen, we meet in the opening pages with his equally-young lover, Ruth. (As an aside, I liked Ruth a good deal. She’s that rare thing in the world of historical adventure, a young woman with her head screwed on, whose femininity is not germane to the plot.) And the reader is lulled into a false sense of Wolfshead security: that when Richie and his Bairns hole up at Hope’s End, we are venturing into the territory of Merrie Men, with Ruth in the sweet guise of Marian under the greenwood tree.
Nah. This is a much harder, much darker, story than that.
Richie is a “broken man” but he’s not by any stretch broken by his outlawry.
These are not a band of tragic outcasts and misfits. They’re rough fighting men who – for the most part – are the instruments of their own destruction, part of a society with all the moral rectitude of a weasel in rut. At one point, Richie suggests that they ought to stop fighting and try and work towards a society where they can all live in peace. His lads look at him blankly…He can’t see it happening, either. It’s the only world they know, every man for himself and Devil take the hindmost. And they quite enjoy it…no wrestling with conscience here, thank you.
David Pilling writes with a zest and a very appealing black humour, and a firm grip of the chicanery of 16th century Scots and English politics. Wonderful, vicious action sequences vy with regional dialogue that thrums with colour and threat. Most of my knowledge of the Border reivers – to my shame, my mother being a McLellan, descended from this brawling knot of amoral cattle-rustlers! – comes from George Macdonald Fraser, and the author is kind enough to give his source material for those who want to go further.
I can see this as an early episode in the career of Richie’s Bairns, despite its completeness as a work in its own right. Is the Countess going to be Richie’s own Milady de Winter, in future books? Will the Bairns come to acquire a moral compass, under the shadow of the English?
I do hope we’re going to find out.
Grab your own copy on Amazon here