Somehow this book about slaughter, fear and love manages to be entirely bland. I was very exited when I came across it; it seemed to have a good plot-structure and a heroine willing to take charge. But the book proved to be a disappointment. Sure, it was an entertaining read for an evening and yes the impact of the battle was well conveyed, but little else can be said for the book. I barely bothered finishing it.
When I lived in Edinburgh, I walked along Flodden Wall every for a year. I knew it was named for a famous battle, but why had there to be a battle and who won? Of course Scots and Englishmen hardly ever need an excuse to murder each other back then, but what was this particular excuse?. Turns out, the battle took place in 1513, and the Scots and Englishmen tried to hack each other to death because of Scotland’s alliance with France. The battle was a catastrophe for the Scots; not only was the army slaughtered, but King James died, leaving his baby son as monarch.
Goring begins the story just after the battle itself, and have three main POVs: Louisa who searches for her brother, the late king’s secretary Paniter who suffers battle shock and Adam Crozier who must navigate his family’s uncertain future on the border. Louisa was my main reason for buying the book for she looks like quite a woman in the beginning. The girl has watched her family fall a part in the last few years: first her merchant/pirate father perishes, then her older beautiful sister dies giving birth to the king’s illegitimate child and new her brother appears to have been killed on the battlefield. Louisa cannot bear watching her mother’s terrible grief and refuses to believe that her beloved older brother is gone forever. So she dresses up as a boy, takes the family horse and rides out alone from Leith to search the battle field. A promising start for a character, but sadly Louisa goes from being a strong willed young woman, to a girl who need men to help her and gets caught in a not very convincing love triangle with Crozier and a handsome courtier. One dimensional, predictable characters does not make for an engaging love triangle; it is barely interesting.
Paniter was actually one of the more interesting persons in the book. He was there to see the build up to the conflict, the miscalculations made by James, himself and the other politicians and he was one of the few to survive the battle. He manages to get home to Edinburgh, but soon has a mental collapse which understandable considering the deaths he has witnessed. But Scotland is weak without a grown monarch and with so many experiences leaders dead. Paniter thus has to somehow pull himself together to deal with the aftermath of the catastrophe. I liked this man. He must take part of the blame of the disaster that was Flodden to the Scots, but he does try to salvage what he can afterwards. I also liked that Goring did not paint him as a villain although he was a Catholic churchman who slept with his housekeeper and fathered several children – a nice balance of good and bad!
In the weeks after the battle, it becomes clear to Paniter that Scotland was betrayed and a traitor is walking around unpunished. His search for the backstabber gets tangled up with Louisa’s search for her brother and violence ensues. I was not especially bothered about this story line either. It was pretty clear at the beginning of the book who the culprit was. The reader/audience knowing who the criminal is and the authorities not can be an entertaining plot device (The Fall is a prime example of this), but in that case the bad guy’s identity should be revealed by intent. Perhaps After Flodden would have benefited from this alternative plot structure? I think so, it would have given us the opportunity to learn a bit more about the spy’s motives.
What After Flodden does well is showing us the confusion and all across Scotland after the battle. With so many men dead or dragging themselves back despite horrible wounds, with the loss of a king, the country’s uncertainty about the future seems entirely understandable. The book was an interesting history lesson, but not an interesting novel.