Book Review: Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (aka the series opener to my favorite series)

Being a fan of Game of Kings—of any Dunnett novel—is a strange experience. The fandom is passionate, but of plenty of folks, understandably, don’t get what the fuss is about. Dunnett makes no concessions to readers. You have to think about what you are reading. With Dunnett, it’s important to consider the possibilities and implications of each interaction—which can take you out of the story.

Plus, Dunnett is given to quotations in Renaissance French, Spanish, and Latin without the benefit of translation (which can also take you out of the flow) And her hero frequently comes off as a terrible person, although he invariably has his reasons.

But if you are willing to do what the author demands, (the thinking and the Latin Googling, and the adapting yourself to her style), what you get is a dazzling portrait of the High Rennaissance, with an equally dazzling cast of characters at its heart.

In Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, Francis Crawford of Lymond, disgraced younger son of the a noble Scottish family, returns to Scotland, an outlaw, after a long absence. The year is 1547, Henry VIII’s young son Edward is on the throne of England, and skirmishing between England and Scotland is happening all along the borders.

With this background of turmoil, and at the head of a band of fellow outlaws, Francis will reunite with his estranged family, strike up a complex friendship with the heir to a great estate, and with his outlaws, interfere in the political workings of England and Scotland—but is he betraying his country or saving it, trying to clear his name, or just cause trouble?

The thing that strikes you first is Dunnett’s prose. It is dense, rich, distinctive, full of allusion, implication, and subtlety. Often she will imply something rather than tell the reader outright. Her descriptions—of clothing, food, weather, are incredibly evocative.

The second thing that strikes you is her hero, Francis. He starts off insufferable: a prosy, high-handed know-it-all, too clever and pretty for his own good, and in his second on-page appearance he breaks into his own mother’s castle, robs it, and sets it on fire. It’s hard to muster sympathy for him for the vast majority of the book. But nothing is as it appears, and if you are willing to put up with Francis, the unfolding of his story—including the purpose behind his actions—will hit you like a rock to the forehead late in the game, one of those fantastic ah-ha moments that every writer hopes to give their readers.

And fortunately Francis is surrounded by a vivid and incredibly appealing supporting cast, in which one is happy to find a lot of amazing women. Francis’ indomitable mother, his friend the blind but dauntless Christian Stewart, the romantic Agnes Herries, and the severely practical Kate Somerville are standouts.

Add to that a plot that ticks along like a good stopwatch, a dry, subtle sense of humor, and just a wonderfully romantic sensibility, without stooping to cliché, and you have a winning combination. Not romance in the sense of love or sex, although that plays a part. But romance in the sense of swordfights, last stands, desperate escapes, grand sacrifices, a larger-than-life hero. All those things can be found in Dunnett’s work, and she can and will dazzle you, like her hero, if you just give her time to do so.

To conclude, I have two pieces of advice for readers just embarking on their first read of Game of Kings:

1) If, after the first chapter, you find yourself asking, “Buy why was the pig drunk?” you aren’t reading closely enough.

2) Before passing judgment on Francis, wait until you find out who the Spanish nobleman is.
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Published on March 20, 2020 18:27
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message 1: by Lila (new)

Lila Every time I reread Lymond Chronicles, I find something new to be amazed by.

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