Queens’ Play: Dorothy Dunnett

★★★★½

The Lymond Chronicles: Book II

It is 1550, two years after the events in The Game of Kings. Mary of Guise plans a journey to France, to visit her eight-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, who is being brought up at Henri II’s court as the affianced bride of the Dauphin. The fate of Scotland depends on the fate of this little girl and Mary of Guise fears that the vultures have grown more daring. She calls on Lymond (now restored to favour) to accompany her to France and unearth any plots against the little Queen.

Most men, given such a charge, would travel circumspectly, keeping on the outskirts to observe the machinations of the Court. Lymond, as I suppose I should have foreseen, throws himself audaciously into the glare of attention, hidden in full view, playfully pushing the Court ever further towards its limits and watching to see where the cracks appear.

I admit that I was predictably fooled by the opening of the book. Having assiduously avoided all spoilers, I swallowed the red herrings and assumed that Lymond must be disguised as O’LiamRoe: on page 48, when he is literally unmasked, I consequently had to reassess everything I’d read up until that point – which of course was part of the joy of it. From then on I watched as Lymond – in the person of Thady Boy Ballagh – ingratiates himself into the court with his myriad talents, trying to lure the plotters into the open. The French court proves to be a microcosm of the political struggles in north-western Europe. Added to the tensions of the first book, between Scotland, England and France, are those of Ireland, which demands liberation from English rule and military support from France. Stationed between them, Lymond ends up juggling several increasingly fraught political situations, any one of which could kill if mishandled. All are inextricably linked with the question of who has designs on Queen Mary’s life.

Queens’ Play is on a much larger scale than The Game of Kings.  Here the stakes are higher, the enemies are cloaked with royal protection, and kingdoms rather than one man’s reputation are at stake. I begin to know Lymond as a character now, and understand the fierce affection he inspires in a lot of readers. He is quite a creation, with his feigned absurdities and extravagances, his detached inner calm, his network of colleagues and accomplices, his apparently inexhaustible resourcefulness and his understanding of the human psyche. His appeal is well-described by Dunnett herself, through O’LiamRoe’s lips:

‘Tis the liberty of mind, and annulment of convention, and a fine carefree richness of excesses itself sets the soul whirling and soaring.

With such a character, who is accomplished in so many fields, the initial interest naturally comes from watching the display of his abilities and marvelling at them. But eventually I shall want to see proof of Lymond’s limits: to see him pushed beyond the point where his brilliant mind and his connections can twist him out of trouble – to see him, only temporarily, reduced to raw necessity, all the glittering layers stripped away, to see the kind of man he truly is. (I admit there were elements of this in the trial scene in The Game of Kings and also here, after the nightshade incident.)

Certain things I already understand. Lymond is a consummate player of the game and as such his thoughts, and his moves, focus on the large-scale, the international, the grand sweep of history. He has less thought for the lives of the individuals around him, who so often find their self-respect, pride, affections and even lives sacrificed upon the altar of Lymond’s greater causes. He regrets it when this happens but, from what I can see so far, he makes no move to reduce the likelihood of it happening again; nor is it easy to see what lasting emotional impact these events have on him. Again, part of the interest in future books will be to see if – and how – Lymond tempers his zeal with a more mature sense of responsibility.

Dunnett’s language fazed me less this time. Rather than trying to make sense of the occasionally baffling quotations, I simply accepted them as part of the atmosphere. Here I also came to appreciate her dexterity with language: she treats the high and the low, the grand and the ridiculous, the gleeful and the tragic with the same facility.  When I wrote about The Game of Kings, I mentioned the impressive set-piece of the duel: well, there are more such scenes, and grander, here.  The bristling ceremonial of the entry procession in Rouen was wonderfully depicted, while the opening passages of the hunt at Blois sounded like the description of some beautiful illumination from a book of hours.

But these paled beside the moonlit steeplechase over the roofs of Blois.  This last sequence was magnificent and other people have already mentioned it to me as one of their own highlights.  I really had a sense of the breathless wildness of it all – nothing else encapsulated, quite like this, the madcap undergraduate sense of humour that Lymond employs in his Thady Boy Ballagh role. Yet Dunnett is equally adept at quieter moments; she has a fine sense of the absurd. As if deliberately setting out to avoid cliches, she comes up with descriptions which sound bizarre but which manage to conjure up precisely the right sensation: for example, when one of her characters concludes, with exasperation, that ‘arguing with O’LiamRoe was like fighting a curtain‘.

After The Game of Kings, I thought I’d have a slight grasp on events by now. However, I’m rather pleased to say that, for most of the book, I had absolutely no idea how the complicated net of allegiances and enmities was going to end. To be frank, I wasn’t even sure who belonged to which part of the web. By whisking her characters out of Scotland and off to France, Dunnett changes the boundaries and scenarios and throws everything up in the air again: all I could do was simply watch the glittering pieces fall.  How she is going to maintain this pace through four more books, I have no idea.  If the title and cover illustration of the third book are anything to go by, I would hazard that the setting will change again: it looks as if we’ll be even further afield, in Malta.

And a query, thrown out there for curiosity.  How old do you think is Lymond supposed to be?  Perhaps we find out later in the series, in which case I’ll be patient… When I began reading the first book I assumed – considering his travels and experience – that he must be in his thirties; but here there were many references to how young he was, so I had to revise that assumption downwards.  It doesn’t matter, really – if it had, Dunnett would have clarified it – but I’m just curious as I’ve having trouble conjuring up a mental image.

A small plea: it makes me very happy when people comment or share their own passion for this series, but please don’t give me any hints about what happens in the future!

Buy the book

Last in this series: The Game of Kings

Next in this series: The Disorderly Knights

11 thoughts on “Queens’ Play: Dorothy Dunnett

  1. wayspooled says:

    “And a query, thrown out there for curiosity. How old do you think is Lymond supposed to be? Perhaps we find out later in the series, in which case I'll be patient…”

    You'll find out later. 🙂 Glad you're enjoyed the book!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, I think I finally got round to figuring it out in Book 4 (better late than never!). It is rather marvellous though, how Dunnett sets it up: it just suddenly dawns on you that Lymond is shockingly young to have done everything that he has done. As I said with reference to Pawn of Frankincense, it really makes me feel that I've wasted my twenties. 😉

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