Wednesday 6 November 2019

Book Review: Sky Dance by John D. Burns

Novels about hillwalking and mountaineering are rare and those that do exist are often hardcore adventure stories. Comic outdoor novels with a message are virtually non-existent, which makes John D. Burns first novel especially welcome. Combining serious concerns with humour could easily result in an uncomfortable mis-match. Not with this book. Burns deftly mixes the two, never dwelling on the message too long or taking the comedy too far. The balance he achieves works well.

This isn't a subtle book. The message is spelled out clearly in the subtitle - Fighting for the wild in the Scottish Highlands - and different aspects of it appear throughout the book. These are current concerns - rewilding, landownership, bulldozed tracks, grouse moors, lynx reintroduction. The books title refers to the bird that has become the symbol of opposition to the destruction of wildlife, the hen harrier.

The story is about two mountaineers, Rory and Angus, and their growing dissatisfaction with the state of the wild places they love and their determination to do something about it. Opposed to them is Lord Purdey, standing for every arrogant elitist landowner. Supporting them is a new hippy landowner, Tony Muir. The names are not accidental of course, Purdey being the British maker of the guns used to slaughter wildlife. Muir should need no explanation. Both are comic caricatures. I think Purdey works best. He is over-the-top but some landowners and their followers aren't that far from him. Muir doesn't come across as quite as real, but then his role isn't as important.

I found the story compelling and entertaining. I usually read for a while to unwind before going to bed. A sign of a good book is when I stay up much later than intended. I did that for several nights with Sky Dance. I enjoyed the descriptions of days out, wild places, bothy life and the mountains; I nodded my head at the polemics; and I wanted to know what happened next. That's a great combination.

At the start of this review I said novels like this are virtually non-existent. I can only think of one - the late great Edward Abbey's wonderful The Monkey Wrench Gang. It's long been time for a similar comic romp about our wild places. John D. Burns has provided it.

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