The Lymond Chronicles: Book I
It is Scotland, in the 1540s. Edward VI is on the throne in England, the realm governed by his Protectors. In Edinburgh, Mary of Guise rules as regent for her infant daughter, later to become Mary Queen of Scots. The vultures, French and English, gather around the little queen, hoping to benefit from her marriage, while the Scottish lords beat back wave after wave of concerted English invasion. Into this political powder-keg comes Francis Crawford of Lymond: nobleman, wit, exile and ex-galley-slave, determined to prove himself innocent of a six-year-old charge of treason. ‘Lymond is back,’ says the first line of the book; and the game can begin.
To misquote the footballing phrase, The Game Of Kings is a book of two halves. Despite my established fondness for Dorothy Dunnett, I found the first part of the book almost impenetrable. If I were to read it again now, knowing what happens, I would probably reassess it as brilliant; but as a newcomer, with no prior knowledge of what to expect from the book, I found myself suddenly in a very confusing world. I didn’t understand the past events which led to these opening gambits; I wasn’t sure why current events were happening; and I certainly didn’t know how I was meant to feel about the various characters. As far as I could see, I was supposed to admire Lymond simply for managing to keep one step ahead of everyone else. Certainly, his apparent actions (burning his mother’s house, sending jewels to his brother’s neglected wife, trying to kill his brother) hardly inspired affection. All I can say to those who feel similarly lost is, ‘Trust me: this will all make sense.’
Halfway through, Lymond began to grow on me, largely due to his relationship with Christian Stewart. I began to understand that his sprezzatura hid a much sadder, deeper, more tormented character than I’d initially imagined and, crucially, I began to care what happened to him. In many ways, Dunnett keeps us in the dark throughout the book, presenting events in a very matter-of-fact way and not explaining them. Things only grow clearer at the end, in a courtroom denouement, when it transpires that much of what we thought we knew is in fact the exact reverse. There are still many questions left unanswered, which I assume become clearer in the later books in the series.
The first book I read by Dunnett was The Spring of the Ram. By the time she wrote that, after completing the Lymond Chronicles, she had perfected a writing style which was descriptive, evocative and clear. Here, by contrast, her prose is occasionally overtaken by exuberance. There were many, many words I’d never heard of before, along with fragments of songs in various languages and pieces of dialogue phonetically rendered in a Scottish accent. Unfortunately written accents or dialects are a pet hate of mine, because I’m an impatient reader and dislike having to say things aloud before I can understand them. When I reread the book (in order to remind myself what happened, as much as anything), I must have a good dictionary on hand. The prose is a Baroque fantasia of ornament and flamboyance, a confounding show of bravura.
Sometimes, however, Dunnett’s writing already has the vivid, swift, cinematic sweep that works so very well in her later Niccolò books. Take this section, for example, which is just one paragraph from a particularly excitingly-written duel:
The long blades exploded together, cracked, chimed and clattered; the stockinged feet slid and shuffled and the two men breathed in gasps, quickly, traversing and gyrating, slipping in and out of sword-length, each in a cocoon of whirring light. A blizzard of suns on walls and ceiling enclosed them.
While I was reading The Game of Kings, I had the niggling sensation that I’d once read another book like this, where the language was so extravagant and playful and tightly-woven that I could scarcely figure out what was happening behind it – another book where everyone seemed to be engaged in desperately complex activities that were never explained – where things were hinted, insinuated and rarely made clear – and this morning it struck me which book that other one was: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. The Game of Kings presents a more unified plot and a clearer sense of purpose, in the end, but the two definitely have a family resemblance. Reading Quicksilver always makes me feel inadequately intelligent too, which perhaps is why I never bothered to read the others in the series. I think where The Game of Kings wins out is that Lymond is – in the end – a sympathetic character and one you can grow fond of.
In common with the Niccolò books, there is so much meat in The Game of Kings that I sometimes felt I had to chew my way through it, but it was certainly worth it at the end. In my earlier post on Dunnett, I said that her Niccolò series was crying out to be the next big-budget HBO series. The Game of Kings, with its sharper geographical focus, its battles and showpieces, and above all its verbose, swashbuckling hero, would make a splendid film. There is already a huge fan-base and even a book – The Dorothy Dunnett Companion – to help readers navigate her novels (a book I’ll need, if I’m going to embark on Lymond’s further adventures – and, let’s face it, I obviously am).It wasn’t the easiest read I’ve ever had. In fact, parts of it were pretty hard going. But the reward felt all the greater at the end of it, and I know that this book will stick with me in a way that lighter, quicker, less demanding novels simply don’t. And there were many, many points when I paused, set the book aside, and thought, ‘Good God, I wish I could write like that.’
Next in the series: Queens’ Play