Review: Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring

Open Borders

Dacre’s War, Rosemary Goring’s follow up to After Flodden, remains with the Crozier clan in the Scottish Borders of the sixteenth century and expands scope to include the courts and taverns of France and London. When you’re dealing with one of the most treacherous periods of Scottish history, it’s a very lucky character that survives from one book to the next. In the ten years between volumes, Adam Crozier has gone some way towards consolidating his power in Teviotdale. With the boy King James V on the throne, a French regent, the Dowager Queen and her husband all tugging at the fabric of state, Scotland is torn into rags. The area is held in pressurized containment by the Warden General, Thomas Dacre. Pitting clans against each other, encouraging lawlessness so the rewards flow into his pockets, Dacre is an old man, tiring of the weather and the daily grind of being Henry VIII’s man in the North. He begs the king to let him leave his post, a favour Henry isn’t keen to grant. Meanwhile Adam Crozier plots Dacre’s downfall in revenge for his father’s murder.

Where After Flodden echoed with horses’ hooves on the rough roads, Dacre’s War is more of a suspense thriller, full of back room negotiations, court room set-pieces and political intrigue. It’s a study in the corruption of power. The long knives are out and the border rings to the tune of vengeance. Behind every damask and tapestry there is a hostile ear.

It’s a rollicking good adventure, skilfully plotted by Goring. While Crozier struggles to unite the Borders against Dacre, there are numerous sub-plots and side-games that surpass entertainment. The ‘heresy’ of the new Protestantism slips in through the character of a French deserter from the Regent’s army, while gender politics and social expectations are probed through Adam and Louise’s marital tensions. This is an ambitious book with clear, deep knowledge behind it and rewards multiple readings. Academic weight combines with a campfire storyteller’s glee to form a welcome addition to the canon of Scottish historical fiction, a genre otherwise dogged by a ‘kings-and-claymores’ or ‘kilts-and-heather’ image problem and the perception – rightly or wrongly – that many have taken liberties with their scholarship. From Tom Devine’s justifiable labelling of John Preebles work as ‘faction’ to the long, dark curse of emotional manipulation Braveheart cast over the whole enterprise, our history hasn’t always been well served. Yet a recent resurgence, uncoincidentally arising with the debates around Scottish independence, is giving Scottish historical fiction a new, respectable lease of life. At the forefront is Goring’s work and Rona Munro’s stunning James trilogy, produced by our National Theatre in 2014.

History, as much as art, is the process by which we explore ourselves and craft the narratives that give our nation shape and drive. Post-referendum, while a number of our speculative writers are beginning to explore what-might-have-been utopias and we’ve-only-ourselves-to-blame dystopias, a serious, objective reappraisal of our past is also underway that embraces this ambivalence. It’s no surprise that Goring’s series (there’s a strong hint that the story of the Croziers isn’t over) is set in the Borders. With its geographical ambiguity and divided loyalties, it’s the perfect backdrop for some national self-appraisal. There’s none of the Royal Mile gift shop in works like Dacre’s War, nor is there a mass grave of slaughtered facts. Goring has stripped away history’s sepia-tinged distance, its sickly romance and self-pitying tragedy to show us a Scotland coming to terms with its contradictions, picking itself up and dusting itself down. Dacre’s War contributes an important piece to the next stage of that project.

– Totoro

(Originally published in Gutter issue 13)

Polygon, £14.99, 352pp

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