Dorothy Dunnett

A Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett: I picked up Dorothy Dunnett on Cat’s recommendation. A Game of Kings is the first book in her famous Lymond series, featuring the Scottish aristocrat, Francis Crawford of Lymond, the Master of Culter. The book felt bewildering at first because Dunnett drops us into the story with very little background, and since my global history course back in high school had spent only a few days on Tudor-era England, I felt rather at sea in the morass of Scottish-English relations. (What I know of Scottish history mostly comes from two Sir Walter Scott novels and the movie Braveheart.) Actually, simply keeping track of who was related to whom and who had married into which family was difficult enough at first before I realized there was a useful list of characters at the beginning of the book.

But once I’d managed to get my bearings, the book became one of those compelling reads that keep you up late into the night because you simply can’t put it down. Dunnett’s prose is intricate and dense but beautifully descriptive; I’ve read few authors who could write such detailed action scenes while preserving the suspense. (The swordfight between Lymond and his brother, for example.) Her characters are vivid, almost to the point of being larger-than-life, and speak with an eloquence that probably would only have worked in historical fiction. E.g. Lymond, on patriotism:

Into the silence, the Master spoke gently. “These are not patriots, but martyrs, dying in cheerful self-interest as the Christians died in the pleasant conviction of grace, leaving their example by chance to brood beneath the water and rise, miraculously, to refresh the centuries. The cry is raised: Our land is glorious under the sun. I have a need to believe it, they say. It is a virtue to believe it; and therefore I shall wring from this unassuming clod a passion and a power and a selflessness that otherwise would be laid unquickened in the grave.” [...]

“And who shall say they are wrong,” said Lymond. “There are those who will always cleave to the living country, and who with their uprooted imaginations might well make of it an instrument for good. Is it quite beyond us in this land? Is there no one will take up this priceless thing and say, Here is a nation, with such a soul; with such talents; with these failings and this native worth? In what fashion can this one people be brought to live in full vigour and serenity, and who, in their compassion and wisdom, will take it and lead it into the path?”

Would you see such gifts of oratory in a modern-day character? It’s not just Lymond’s gifted tongue that moves the stage to silence either; Mary de Guise’s heartfelt speech in the last chapter was also amazing.

Lymond does edge dangerously close to being a little too ideal: he is charismatic and accomplished, speaks at least a half-dozen languages, is gifted with the sword and bow, charms women, possesses an ironic wit, is both a debauched scoundrel and a man of honor. But I still ended up liking his character nonetheless (six years ago, I would have fallen in love with him). Perhaps I’m just weak to protagonists who can quote at the drop of a hat. Lymond speaks in quotes as much as Wimsey does, although I recognize far fewer of his sources.

I’m no expert on this historical period of course, but Dunnett does seem to have done her research thoroughly. I did notice a few anachronisms, such as a reference to Shahrazad from 1001 Nights, which (Wikipedia confirms) was not translated into any Western European language until the eighteenth century. (Or perhaps we are to assume Lymond read it in the original Arabic? But then why would other characters even recognize the reference?) But these anachronisms are only occasional, and given the length and scope of this book, I think a few mistakes are entirely forgivable.

Comments (4)

  1. Pizzadiavola wrote::

    You read it! You reviewed it! <3! I read Francis Crawford of Lymond, the Master of Culter and shivered–”Master of Culter” is an evocative phrase for me and I haven’t read the Lymond books in a while (i.e. January), yet seeing it made me think of all things Lymond.

    Would you see such gifts of oratory in a modern-day character?

    I think that such oratory is unlikely in a modern day leader, for the most part, now that rhetoric isn’t a part of education in the Western countries and there’s a sound bite culture in modern politics (U.S., at least). But in earlier times, such orators would have been more common, so Lymond’s oratory isn’t improbable. Look at Cicero (In Catilinam has great patriotic stuff) or Pericles’ funeral oration on democracy or even JFK, for a more recent example.

    But then why would other characters even recognize the reference?

    That’s a good point. I can’t recollect whether he knows Arabic at this point in his life. Perhaps some of the stories were transmitted into Europe orally through traders or Crusaders?

    Lymond does edge dangerously close to being a little too ideal

    That’s true, but he’s broken and messed up enough to make him fascinating, at least to me, rather than a revolting Mary Sue. The comparison that jumps to mind is Cassandra Clare’s Draco in the Draco Dormiens trilogy, whom she admits is heavily based on Lymond. The difference between the two is that Draco is too polished and although he has problems, they’re all in the “I suffer artfully and I never question my very being, the principles by which I govern my life” kind of way, whereas Lymond is continually ground down and put in crises of conscience, both emotionally and idealogically.

    The best part of the series is that THEY ONLY GET BETTER.

    Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 00:42 #
  2. Pizzadiavola wrote::

    Actually, simply keeping track of who was related to whom and who had married into which family was difficult enough at first

    Ahahaha. The House of Niccolo series is far, far more difficult on this point, and the connections actually matter in the story there (likewise in King Hereafter, the novel on Macbeth). I think her writing became denser and more elliptical as she aged, in that much more is implied and elided and it’s up to the reader to remember X married Y, which means that this fragment of dialogue implies Z about the situation…

    The swordfight between Lymond and his brother

    Yes! The prose is beautiful, the imagery is descriptive–for me, the opening of that chapter is like seeing it as a black and white silent film shot from an aerial point of view, with the removed perspective and the distant description of the fight, suddenly zooming in on the characters and turning the sound on: swords clashing, harsh panting. The emotions behind everything are intense and the whole swordfight is viscerally thrilling. It’s just prose and it’s just fiction, but at the same time, it matters so much to me when I’m reading it. And now I’m resorting to italics for emphasis, so I will stop here before I lose my brain entirely.

    Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 00:50 #
  3. troisroyaumes wrote::

    But in earlier times, such orators would have been more common, so Lymond’s oratory isn’t improbable.

    Oh yes, that’s what I meant. I didn’t think it was improbable at all—quite the opposite—just regretting that rhetoric is no longer the art form that it used to be, alas, to the point where I would never expect a plausible present-day character to make such stirring speeches. Politics will be much more interesting if our leaders could orate like Lymond does.

    Lymond is continually ground down and put in crises of conscience, both emotionally and idealogically.

    Oh yes, what keeps Lymond real for me is that he does show moments of weakness, e.g. when Richard manages to make him break down after mentioning Eloise. I think he’s also just perverse enough not to make himself completely endearing to the reader; there are times when he’s more dismaying than charming.

    I think her writing became denser and more elliptical as she aged

    Haha, and I thought this book was fairly dense. I’ll have to prepare to exercise my brain for the sequels then.

    Thanks again for recommending the series to me! I ended up staying up late to finish the last third of the book on Friday because I simply couldn’t put it down even though I was dead-tired from the week. I’m really looking forward to getting the next book.

    Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 22:30 #
  4. Pizzadiavola wrote::

    Perverse is an apt word for him – Lymond is Prunier’s raffinata, elegante, perversa in a nutshell.

    Bwahaha!! After I was done with exams and papers last term, I read King Hereafter and all of the House of Niccolo. I read all day and past sunrise every day because I couldn’t put the books down.

    Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 23:07 #