Burning the Water (Border Reivers Book 2)

Written by Robert Low
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

The second novel in Low’s Border Reivers series opens with an irascible Henry VIII having to be cut from his armour because his putrefying leg has swollen. He has a missive to be sent north to the Cheviots in this, the aftermath of the suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace. But this isn’t Henry’s story but that of Batty Coalhouse, half-Saxon, half-Border Scot, still a soldier of fortune though ageing, fat, and with a stump instead of a left arm. Batty is given the task of bringing to safety a group of nuns and children, who reportedly carry with them the treasures of the suppressed Glastonbury Abbey.

In his engagements across Europe, Batty has encountered many who have altered the course of history: Michelangelo, Luther, Calvin, Melancthon. What exercises him most is his longing for vengeance against fellow-mercenary Fabrizio Maramaldo, responsible for his maiming. Low’s language is confidently rich, as in ‘…an undershot jaw curving up a scimitar beard of tow-coloured hair to meet the scowl of a lintel of brows coming down on a blade of pitted nose.’ His knowledge of the historical context is thorough; whilst he exercises some artistic licence, this is detailed in accompanying notes. Sometimes, though, language and imagery risk overwhelming the plot, and there is more emphasis on action than on characterisation, as characters (with the notable exception of Batty) tend not to drive the plot so much as be driven by it. This book is not for the squeamish: there are quite a few violent deaths, described with relish rather than empathy for the sufferers. Somehow though Batty always wins through, despite his manifest disadvantages, a survivor in a merciless time.