Rosemary Goring’s sequel to her debut novel After Flodden is set ten years later in 1523, but begins with a brief prologue immediately following the battle in 1513 which sets the scene for Dacre’s War and connects the main protagonist, Lord Thomas Dacre, to both storylines. Set in the border country which continues to be in a state of turmoil following Flodden, Dacre has been appointed by Henry VIII to govern in the north. Beleagured by opposition from both sides of the border, Dacre is unable to completely trust anyone, apart from his faithful butler, Blackbird. His greatest enemy, however, is the clan leader, Adam Crozier, who is seeking revenge for the murder of his father, which had been ordered by Dacre. The novel is a fast paced adventure, steeped in political intrigue, violence and romance, within the setting of a harsh and brutal environment which is always skilfully portrayed by Goring’s rich prose.
The descriptions and historical details of each individual setting, both inside and outside, are very absorbing and draw the reader deeply into the narrative. This strength of visual description is portrayed in individual characters, painting a very vivid picture of the people, such as when we read of: ”Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus. Striking in a tunic of gold and green, his legs were like stalks of ripe wheat”.
The descriptions of the households of the nobility such as that of Linlithgow Palace, the residence of Margaret Tudor, Dowager Queen of Scots, are not only researched in great detail but also emphasise the relative opulence of those establishments:
“Linlithgow Palace sat in a blaze of light, its gardens set afire by braziers, the courtyard and ramparts glowing orange under the torches on its walls”.
Similarly, her description of entering the interior of Lord Foulberry’s castle highlights the contrast, not only between the stark exterior of the castle walls and the rooms inside, but also that between Foulberry’s residence and the homes, often described as hovels in the novel, of the majority of the borderers:
“…it was like entering a fairy tale. Newly cut ivy hung in swags from the walls, and its wood-panelled rooms were draped with tapestries brought, had he known it, at painful cost from Isabella’s homeland. Ceilings were painted in such a profusion of colour and imagery, it was as if the ancient myths had come alive before one’s eyes.”
The stark differences between the noble houses and those of the majority of the borderers who were struggling to survive can be compared to the differences in wealth which Dacre himself notices in London in comparison to the north.
The strength and influence of the female characters are the main arbiters of the development of the narrative and contribute to the important turning points in the novel. It is the gentle strength of Crozier’s wife, Louise, that encourages her husband to pursue a cleverly orchestrated political revenge, and their over-riding love for each other is at the heart of the story. It is also Louise’s bravery, kindness and open-mindedness in giving refuge to Antoine, the Lutheran refugee, that brings about redemption in the underlying romantic plotline. Her resilience and quick thinking are the bedrock of her relationship with her husband as well as subtly guiding the events of the novel. Meanwhile it is Dacre’s correspondence with Margaret Tudor and the relationship of his daughter, Joan, with Oliver Barton which constitute major plot twists with regard to Dacre and his battle for survival with those who are plotting against him.
The combination of extremely detailed historical research, beautifully descriptive prose and strong characterisation woven into a tale of political intrigue in evocative and atmospheric settings makes this a book with which many readers will quickly become absorbed.