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Star Read's Vikings reboot lives in David Greig's Darkland Tale

By Margaret Chrystall

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David Greig sets his debut novel Columba’s Bones (Polygon, £10) on the island of Iona – or “I” in the book – in the ninth century, when a brutal Viking raid in search of St Columba’s bones leaves few inhabitants alive.

Columba's Bones by David Greig.
Columba's Bones by David Greig.

But this week’s Star Read adds humour as the aftermath of the chilling violence and gives time to get to know the survivors – as they find their pagan and Christian thinking tested as their cultures collide.

The book is the latest in the series Darkland Tales from publisher Polygon, where contemporary Scottish writers are asked to re-imagine stories from the country’s real history or legends.

Greig – the Scottish playwright and artistic director of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre – creates a cast and dramatic events to try them, as Norwegian Grimur, young monk Martin and a widow who creates an irresistible alcoholic mead drink, try to survive against the odds.

The characters are always surprising, funny and strangely loveable, as they also wrestle with the big questions Greig sets them. Love, violence, revenge and the meaning of life – what makes it worth living?

And it is possibly Grimur, the ageing warrior, who has the most to learn and has the courage to try the biggest changes in his search for happiness.

Here, Greig creates a scene you long to see brought to life on stage or screen, as Grimur discovers illuminated manuscripts dead monks have left behind: ‘The workbench was covered with smears of bright blue, red, yellow, and green. Sheets of illustrated parchment were tacked to the wall with pictures of multicoloured birds, golden suns, bright green forests, black cats, purple emperors and white horses.’

Thrilling events in an authentic setting with visually-stunning scenes make Greig’s debut novel – based on his own 2022 walking adventure – unlikely to be his last. MC

Columba’s Bones by David Greig (Polygon, £10).

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