The Game of Kings: Dorothy Dunnett

★★★★

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.’

Buy the book

Next in the series: Queens’ Play

34 thoughts on “The Game of Kings: Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Dorothy Dunnett Companions are useful for the historical background to the series, and Companion II is particularly delightful because many of the entries were written by Dunnett herself, but they will not assist with the fictional elements of the books.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks for letting me know more about the books – it sounds as if they'll be perfect for what I want, which is to know more about the bizarre words and the songs and the historical context of the series. I think a trip to Amazon is in order 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    I read them yearly, and I find new twists and jewels of written word each time. By Pawn in Frankincense you will be wishing for them never to end. Six months after finishing the series, you will want to visit them like old friends.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I started the Dunnett books in 1970 when there were, I think, only 2-3 of the first series completed. I would await the next book for 2-3 years, and re-read the series each time to recall the detail. I LOVED them from the start, as I have always enjoyed living in someone else's world as an escape from this one. I agree that Dunnett's goal of making you wait until the end of the series to learn the truth of Francis's and Nicolas's parentage was a bit frustrating…..

    When Gabaldon's books came out I was surprised no one compared her books to Dunnett's as I saw strong echoes in the flamboyant adventures, the rich characterizations and descriptions of places, action and persons, and the interweaving of history, fiction, and a bit of the supernatural.

  5. Anonymous says:

    What a beautifully written post about my favourite author and series of books! I adore DD obsessively and even though I acknowledge the uneven-ess of Game of Kings, I much much prefer the Lymond series to the Niccolo books. I have been re-reading them for almost 30 years and still discover delights previously unnoticed. I had read them more than twice before I really understood that Francis had set fire to his mother's home etc not so much to play the villain that everyone thought he was but to ensure that Richard would come out in opposition to him and not be embroiled in the hunt and game of reputation-restoring that could see him be branded traitor as well. With Lymond, “apparent actions” is apt as we have to wait and intellectually puzzle through so much action and not a few red herrings to get to our ah-ha!s. Game of Kings at least gives us a resolution to one story thread but we don't have that supplied in each of the books so have the next in the series handy each time you come to a book's end! It's the only way to stay sane. If you haven't seen any spoilers as to who emerges as the peerless heroine, take it from the die-hard fans, you will love her too. For readers who think it all sounds like hard work, don't be put off because if you enjoy the genre, this is in a class of its own. Wonderful story with fascinating and flawed characters who get caught up in love, loyalty and adventure, or self-interest and treachery. And don't forget DD's wit and humour. There is no-one like her anywhere. Not that I have come across. Happy reading!
    Caroline Mc

  6. Christine Janson says:

    Thank you, thank you for an intelligent review that actually gives some of the complex flavors of this book. Just yesterday I read a review of the same book written by someone who hasn't half your wit or sensitivity. She babbled about huge casts of characters and got the plot entirely wrong, and her comments about how historical it all was made it seem unreadable. I am happy to tell you that Game of Kings is the most difficult of the 6 books in the Lymond Chronicles, and it can be read perfectly well by skipping over all the impenetrable Scots poetry and bons mots in various languages. You MUST read the others. The story doesn't really get started until Book 2, Queens' Play (and by the way, Mary of Guise's daughter is already Queen of Scots when we first meet her [“Hurble purple! Hurble purple!”]), where Lymond amuses himself by spying on the French court as Thady Boy Brady, his idea of a vacation after his years as a galley slave. The description of the foot race across the roofs of Blois is brilliant, especially the doomed partnership of Lymond and Robin Stewart. Here begins the great adventure (Books 3 and 4) that will take Lymond to Algeria, Greece, and Turkey in pursuit of a truly evil man and the impossible choices he has to make to take that man down, including the sacrifice of a child who may be his own…Philippa follows him and has adventures of her own that land her in the seraglio of the Ottoman Sultan, and eventually she is forced into a marriage of convenience with Lymond that neither wants. In The Ringed Castle Lymond escapes European politics by going to work as the commander of Ivan the Terrible's armies, but Ivan forces him to return as part of a diplomatic mission. Brilliant warrior that he is, Lymond is kidnapped and extorted by Scotland, England, and France and ends up a Marshal of France. He and Philippa intend to end the marriage until events make that impossible. I have read and reread and reread Book 6 and consider it the greatest love story I've ever read, and I hate romances. Francis Crawford is the most complex fictional character I have ever met, and the way Dunnett weaves the multiple colorful threads of his story into a tapestry of history, psychology, derring-do, music, politics, and sheer intelligence is magical.
    Read every one of these books!! Yes, it's like eating cheesecake, rich rich rich, but also richly rewarding.

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    I'm sure you're right! I've already decided these are not ideal books to read on a Kindle – they definitely need to be lovingly flipped through on numerous occasions – so hard copies are on the way. I'm very impressed that you read them all every year though – how do you find time to read anything else?!

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I consider myself very fortunate that I can read these at exactly the pace I want. Poor you, having to wait! Would you recommend Diana Gabaldon's books, then? I am usually extremely wary of time-travel stories (for want of a better word to describe them: it's Saturday morning and I haven't had any coffee yet), because I find it difficult to suspend the necessary disbelief. But this is my own shortcoming and perhaps I've been missing a lot of good books because of it… Thank you!

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you so much Caroline! I'm sure there are many, many subtleties I've missed as well. And you are absolutely right in pinpointing wit and humour as such defining characteristics of these books. Obviously I'm not in a position to make sweeping statements about the whole series, but in what I've read so far these things and, perhaps just as much, her compassion, really stand out. And thank you for the good advice about buying the next book at the same time. 🙂

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    Christine, you are absolutely right to correct me – she is already Queen of Scots (maybe I should have said 'later to become such a thorn in Elizabeth I's side' or something similar!). And thank you so much for your kind comments! I have to confess I've just skimmed over the second part of your review because I've only read the first book and I absolutely don't want any spoilers about what happens later on… but I really appreciate your enthusiasm for the greater sweep of the plot, and I will come back and savour it fully on a later occasion when I'm further into the story.

  11. The Idle Woman says:

    I clearly have quite a treat ahead of me. But I can't deny it's a relief to hear that there's nothing quite as baffling waiting for me in the future! Thank you so much for your comment.

  12. wayspooled says:

    Well, I had exactly your reactions to reading The Game of Kings. I am jealous that you still have the other 5 to read. By the time I finished the books I also had to set them aside for moments, to smile, to laugh, even to sit dumbfounded and staring into space letting my mind catch up with what I'd read. You'll never run into another section as impenetrable as the first half of the first book – never nearly, but many times you'll think you know what's happened, only to find out gloriously later that you didn't. Perhaps the best books I've ever read. Each book is a complete story but the 6 taken together are a work of art.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I'm a book a day kind of girl- these take me about a week apiece. I don't read the Niccolo series but once every three or so years, so that keeps me free for some other reading…

  14. Cath says:

    I first read Game of Kings as a teenager in 1976 (when I felt it played an vital in getting a Afor A lvel history) and have read both the Lymond and the Niccolo books every few years. I can still remmber the early confusion with Game of Kings trying to work out whether lymond was a hero or anti-hero, but once he tells Will Scotthat he is on the same side,things became, clear and enjoyment and addiction commenced. I find it very satisfying these are books where i feel the reader has to be prepared to put in some work, whether it is with the languages or with keeping up with the plot twists. However the thing I enjoy most are the vivid pictures which remain in my mind, starting with the first book and the drunken sow,sheep with helmetsthe music room at Flaw Valleys, the roof top race, Slata baba and the sleigh ride in Russia, the chess game – the last the stuff of nightmares, but all part of an incredibly rich and colourful tapestry.My only problem is that the linking of the two series means that I am neve sure which one to start with – Gemini makes me want to reread Lymond, which makes me want to reread Niccolo.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Hi, Leander 😉 I first read the Lymond series as a teenager. I have seen other statements that GOK is difficult. DD softened that approach for the Niccolo series as she listened to you, her fans. However the Lymond series – to me – is the best historical fiction ever written. When (not if) you wander past Queens Play, “Knights” and Pawn” are the pivotal books – tell me if you cry at the end of Pawn, then I know you have understood Dorothy's work…. – and for the record, yes I cried….

    Pete Statham

  16. Leander says:

    Hi Pete – thank you very much for your comment! As you may have seen, I've now got through all of Lymond and am now forging a path through the Niccolo series, as ever in awe of Dorothy Dunnett's writing. You are quite right in that the Lymond series is without peer; and Pawn of Frankincense did leave me feeling utterly crushed – though I don't think I actually cried until the end of Checkmate, when the build-up of emotion was just too much to take any more.
    🙂 The problem is, of course, that I'm completely spoiled now as far as historical fiction goes!

  17. Margaret says:

    I wish I hadn't read the 14 books for two reasons. Firstly I wouldn't be spoiled for all other historical writers who now seem shallow. Secondly I would have all of those wonderful words to meet for the first time. If I was invited to the “desert island” I would have to forgo all other books and music to take these.

  18. Anonymous says:

    And so what to do after reading and rereading these wonderful books? Any recommendations for other authors / series ?

  19. The Idle Woman says:

    Many people have told me to try Patrick O'Brian. It's not quite the same, I admit, but he is very good. If you're open to reading books with a slight air of fantasy about them, Guy Gavriel Kay's “The Lions of Al-Rassan” and Jill Paton Walsh's “Knowledge of Angels” come strongly recommended. Diana Norman's “The Vizard Mask” has a similar sense of historical 'place' and a rather wonderful male lead; while for something a bit grimmer, Maria McCann's “As Meat Loves Salt” is a dense, powerful evocation of character which never loses its period flavour. For an earlier historical period, Mary Renault's “Fire from Heaven” and Marguerite Yourcenar's “Memoirs of Hadrian” are both perennial favourites.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I have just started _The Game of Kings_, and had also read Stephenson's _Quicksilver_ before encountering this text. I didn't get quite the same feeling because I started these books already having in mind Hilary Mantel's _Wolf Hall_ and _Bring up the Bodies_.

    But, as I'm writing this comment while still thoroughly stuck in the opening chapters, I can concur about the confusion. Who? What? When (in relation to what I was reading a page earlier)?

    But the language is glorious. Baroque indeed. (And challenging — having small Latin and less Greek, I found myself searching for online help with some of the non-English quotes)

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