By Marcella Milbanke
From the very first page, this is a rip-roaring fictional thriller that plunges the reader headlong into the blood, guts and savagery that came to define Scotland’s turbulent and colourful history.
If you’ve ever wondered how and why the powerful Moffat clan was almost wiped out, the author spares no detail in how one of the most potent powerhouses in the Borders was annihilated.
The book is meant to be for young adults but in reality, it will appeal to all ages especially those interested in Scotland as seen through the eyes of the mysterious Scottish history master, Mr Petrie.
Although it is set in Dumfries and Galloway at Sweetheart Abbey, also known as the Abbey of Dulce Cor (a Cistercian monastery founded in 1275), thanks to the antics of time traveller Mr Petrie, the reader is taken through periods of significant events around the world including the first Afghan war involving the British military.
In a compelling mix of fact and fiction, Mr Petrie is tasked to meet up with Dr William Brydon who was an assistant surgeon in the British East India Company and encourage him to keep a diary of his travels in Afghanistan as the British Military embarked on a retreat in 1842 from Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War.
The aim of Mr Petrie’s mission was to ensure that no other foolhardy venture was conducted in the region by the British Army … well, we all know how well that one worked. But Dr Brydon really did exist and he was the only man to survive the encounter with Afghan fighters after nearly 16,000 were wiped out and he did write an account of the horrors en route to safety in Jalalabad.
One of Mr Petrie’s more amusing escapades involves sneaking into Baroness Thatcher’s bedroom on the eve of her retirement from 10 Downing Street to remove some keys from her handbag for a special mission to stop nuclear waste being dumped in the wonderfully picturesque but remote Galloway Hills covering an area of some 300 square miles of largely uninhabited wild land.
The book is also stuffed with plenty of amusing incidents involving the pupils at the posh boys’ boarding school where to ensure its charitable legacy, there’s also a strong representation of so-called “freebies” as they’re sneeringly called by some of the aristocratic students.
This clash of classes is a constant theme as is the arrival of ‘new money’ in the way of children of aspiring business executives and celebrities as well as overseas students from Russia, the Middle East, Asia and beyond.
There are several themes running through the novel, the first in a trilogy by author Yvonne Ridley, including environmental issues, man’s inhumanity to man, human rights, Britain’s notorious class system and gender equality. It all sounds rather heavy going but Ridley employs a light touch through her amazingly diverse characters.
One of the most interesting groups belong to the Council of Anam Cara; these superior beings are headed by an enigmatic character called Salar who appears to be without gender.
Ridley explains: “The reader can choose Salar’s gender based on their own perceptions. I guess the underlying message is that gender is not important and yet it is a burning issue today which is provoking all sorts of trauma and hysteria in the 21st century.
This book is an ongoing potboiler which is the first of a trilogy by Ridley who no doubt has drawn on her 40 odd years in journalism to develop such interesting plot lines and characters.
She moved to the Scottish Borders in 2011 and although still travels into war zones, humanitarian disaster areas and other hot spots she says her foray into historical fiction has helped her cope with the real traumas of 21st-century life.
“Mr Petrie and his antics have provided me with a much-needed relief away from the harsh realities of life and writing The Caledonians has proved to be extremely cathartic.
— yvonne ridley (@yvonneridley) January 29, 2020
“Of course any resemblance of characters within the pages to those who’ve managed to annoy or disturb me on this journey is purely coincidental,” she adds mischievously.
This being the case, I’d dearly like to know the real person who inspired the strippergram character Rookie Blue, who makes a hilarious entrance in one of the chapters.
Personally, I can’t wait for the next instalment as I’m expecting another literary white knuckle ride to match this one.
With its gangsters, dodgy spies, Russian mafia and decidedly sinister Establishment figures the book, Mr Petrie’s Apprentice, is a gripping read which would lend itself perfectly for a Netflix series. Who knows? Coming on your screen soon … possibly!
Published by Austin Macauley, The Caledonians: Mr Petrie’s Apprentice is priced at £9.99 and is on sale in Waterstones and other good book shops as well as Amazon Books online. A direct link to order is here: https://www.