(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)
Gripping, visceral, and accessible historical fiction
The Battle of Flodden in September 1513 was one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on British soil, in which James IV, King of Scots, and virtually the whole of his nobility and gentry were annihilated in an afternoon along with 15,000 soldiers. Five centuries later, the slaughter still occupies a core position in the Scottish nationalist debate and in the pantheon of heroic failures. This novel puts you in the heart of the action; you’ll feel the sweat and the fear, the curtain of red mist.
The narrative covers April through September 1513, focusing around a handful of key characters: John Heron, Bastard of Ford, swaggering, violent, and disreputable, the black sheep of a good English family; Sir Thomas Howard, leader of the English forces and skilled strategist; Alexander, 3rd Lord Hume, leader of the Scots, bold but impetuous; Isabella Hoppringle, Abbess of Coldstream, hub of a web of influential women throughout the Scottish borders, a woman of significant influence and charisma.
Laced with dark humor and fascinating period detail, Blood Divide reminder readers that political intrigue and human folly are timeless.
[Full disclosure: I received a free print copy from the publisher in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]
In most of the books about Henry VIII you’ll read, the Battle of Flodden is not mentioned at all. I know this because I’ve been reading about Henry VIII in fiction for years now and never heard about Flodden until I requested this book through the blog tour! That’s kind of incredible seeing as it has entered the Scottish consciousness through both story and song and is held up as a sort of symbol of the Scottish struggle for independence. It was romanticized by poets and writers for generations so the fact that I didn’t know about it is just bizarre in hindsight.
However, because I knew almost nothing about the events before, during and after the battle Blood Divide presented me with a great opportunity to learn quite a bit and John Sadler couldn’t have been better at his task. He writes in a way that emphasizes how deep the political intrigues go without confusing the reader. Not only that, since he switches back and forth between Scottish and English characters we get to see both sides of the story but we’re always clear which side the character is on. One of the things that really struck me about his writing was that he uses now-obscure words that the actual people would have used at the time: threapland, heidman, bevor, etc. In the more obscure places he puts a little annotation to define it but for the most part trusts that his readers are intelligent people that can work things out in context. This use of language from the time makes Blood Divide feel all the more authentic when coupled with the content of the descriptions themselves. He never strays into flowery language and because of the subject matter some of his descriptions are sparse but they allow the reader to let the atmosphere of any given scene just wash over them. As I said, it lends a very authentic feeling to the text and it does make you feel like you’re back in the 1500s alongside the characters.
The characters are, of course, all real people that are long dead so John Sadler is speculating at their motivations in some part. However, he does this so well that even if you know the outcome of the story you’re going to cheer for your favourite characters anyway. My personal favourite was John Heron, Bastard of Ford. He’s an English man living close to the border of Scotland who raids into Scottish territory to gain his wealth. (Since he’s the second son and illegitimate to boot he’s always financially struggling.) But when his actions and the eagerness for war that seems the hallmark of James IV’s short reign come together to create a huge conflict, John is right there to help the English. I don’t want to give too much away but the man that almost everyone looks down their nose at will certainly play a huge role in the English victory. It’s lucky that the warden convinced others to actually listen to the man. Of course all of the characters were well fleshed out but I did particularly like John; I’m a sucker for the underdogs.
As I said, John Sadler’s descriptions are enough to convey the scene and atmosphere and that’s actually what makes Blood Divide quite a fast-paced novel. There’s always a sort of dark atmosphere but quite a lot of the time there’s a sense of urgency in that darkness as King James ignores the advice of some of his council and the English forces prepare to be invaded, weakened by the fact that Henry VIII is over in France making a mess of things. So we have a much larger untested force against a smaller but generally better trained force except of course it’s never that simple when you involve politics in things. John Sadler is able to wade through the political mess leading up to the Battle of Flodden, giving it the proper attention it needs but never allowing it to slow down the pacing. The pacing is pretty steady in the beginning but as the drums of war sound, it slowly ratchets up until it’s almost unbearable and you simply have to keep reading. Even if you didn’t like any of the characters (which would be extremely unlikely) the way the story is told would be enough to make you want to read on.
Essentially, Blood Divide is everything I personally look for in historical fiction: it made me learn something new, it was factually accurate, the characters were well fleshed-out with believable motivations and the plot was well paced. You really can’t ask for more than that. For people who study English or Scottish history I would definitely recommend picking up Blood Divide. But even if you’re not familiar with the history of the now United Kingdom I’d recommend this book because it tells a very compelling story about something as old as time: human folly.
I give this book 5/5 stars.