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The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (thoughts)

June 12, 2012

I honestly am not even certain how large my review backlog is right now, because for the first time since 2006 I stopped keeping track of the books I was reading. :o But rather than dwell on that, I thought I’d just dive right in!

I first heard about Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which begin with The Game of Kings, from The Sleepless Reader. In fact, I think she mentioned them on Twitter before she wrote that post! Anyway, I’ve had them in the back of my mind for awhile now and so when I saw that they were available as ebooks from my library, I popped myself in line for the first one. By the time my place in the queue came up, I was in the middle of my reading slump & far more busy with life stuff, so I didn’t actually start reading it until two days before it was ready to expire. Which is how I found myself, the day before my trip to Mexico, more concerned with finishing the three hundred pages I had left of The Game of Kings than with, say, packing! Dunnett’s not the kind of author you can race through, either, so my rational side told me to just wait until later to finish, but I was thoroughly hooked. I ended up spending several happy hours that day curled up with Thistle and my nook, and ended up finishing it with a happy sigh only because I already had the second, The Queen’s Gambit, checked out from the library.

Yes, this is historical fiction (set in 16th century Scotland), but it’s certainly not typical of its genre. Imagine if Dorothy Sayers and Daphne du Maurier had a love child, who was then raised in Scotland by an elderly, overly erudite and slightly old-fashioned guardian and fed a steady diet of political history, medieval literature, and chess strategy, and grew up to write novels: the Lymond Chronicles might be the result. That is my longwinded way of saying I adore Dunnett and her writing and her far-too-clever-for-his-own-good Lymond. :D The Game of Kings opens with Lymond returning from exile, and follows his complicated strategies to regain his place in society (currently, he’s regarded as a traitor and blackguard) while interfering in the British/Scottish intrigues as much as possible. Along the way, there’s a gigantic cast of characters, who all manage to be memorable and human and deeply, deeply loveable. The plot is far more complicated than it ought to be, but even with my minimal knowledge of the time and politics, thanks to Dunnett’s magic, I was able to follow along easily and cheer whenever a real historical person has a cameo.

Having now read The Game of Kings, and adoring it as much as I did (Lymond has easily entered onto my short list of most crushable characters), I also understand why Alexis qualified her recommendation. This isn’t a book to pick up when you’re stressed out or feeling down and just need a quick escape. However, if you’re looking for an intellectual puzzle that keeps you on your toes that also contains a swashbuckling plot that will carry you along and characters so vivid you half expect them to come around for tea one day, do yourself a favour and track this down. I’m just thrilled to have discovered a new author with quite a backlist for me to explore. And with that, I think I’ll go begin Queen’s Play.

44 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2012 7:07 am

    A few years ago one of my blogging goals was to read Dorothy Dunnett at some point during that year. I think I borrowed the book but never actually managed to read it, and I still haven’t done so. I need to try again because I am pretty sure that I am going to love her writing.

    • Stephanie McGann permalink
      June 17, 2012 3:16 pm

      I absolutely adore all of Dunnets books. If you like the Lymond chronicles then make sure and read the House of Niccolo. Lymonds my favorite but Niccolo is not far behind. The writing is magnificent and the plots incredible and then lets talk about Character development. Fabulous. I hope that you are feeling better Ms Dunnett and thank you for a year of enjoyment.

  2. June 12, 2012 7:54 am

    Dorothy Dunnet is new to me, too, but this sounds like just the sort of read I’m craving. Going on my list too; thanks!

  3. June 12, 2012 10:02 am

    I’ve seen Dorothy Dunnet’s books in countless libraries since I was at school but have never read them even though I love historical fiction, series and big books! I know lots of book bloggers are fans and I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed her book. I may just have to check her out.

  4. June 12, 2012 1:37 pm

    I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed this book! I read all six of the Lymond Chronicles between February and April this year and loved them all. I felt bereft when I finished the last one so I’ve now started reading Dunnett’s other series, the House of Niccolo!

  5. June 12, 2012 8:24 pm

    Huzzah! Jenny and I are both huge Dunnett fans. King Hereafter is my hands-down favorite, but I love all her historical fiction. (I haven’t read her mysteries.) Jenny and I were actually discussing how we were both craving a Lymond reread. I’ve only read the series once, and it was over 10 years ago, and I raced through them–as well as you can race with Dunnett–so I’m sure I missed a lot.

    • aartichapati permalink
      June 16, 2012 12:43 am

      I would write my own comment, but Teresa sums up my experience with Dunnett very well. I should read the series again, and this time with the companions! Also, I have King Hereafter waiting patiently for me on my shelf, but am too intimidated to pick it up. While I love Dunnett, she’s not light reading. BUT I think I would love Groa way more than any of her other female characters, most of whom end up disappointing me in the end. But not all :-)

    • June 21, 2012 7:00 am

      If you’re re-reading, I’m in! I plan to finish the Niccolo series soon.

  6. Sylvia permalink
    June 13, 2012 1:05 am

    The series gets better and better…I first read these books over 40 years ago and still regularly re-read them Lymond and Phillipa are my favourite fiction characters….and I love all the historical backgrounds…I have visited Malta, Cyprus, Rhodes, Italy and Scotland in Lymond’s footsteps.

  7. Sylvia permalink
    June 13, 2012 1:09 am

    I take it from the banner at the top of your page your a Jane Austen fan? Me too! I’m off to visit Chawton where Jane lived in a couple of weeks…can’t wait!

  8. June 13, 2012 3:15 am

    I keep hearing a lot of good things about Dorothy Dunnett, but have yet to read anything by her. The list of authors I need to read just keeps getting longer and longer!

  9. June 13, 2012 3:22 am

    *sigh of relief* I’m so glad you liked it! Recommending Dunnett is always complicated, because it’s really not for everyone, especially the first two books. You really need to invest in it, right? Wasn’t that sword fight one of the best swords fights you’ve ever read?

  10. Anonymous permalink
    June 13, 2012 8:13 am

    So good to hear of someone enjoying the Lymond books. i love them but never recommend them to anyone just in case they don’t like them – I feel it would affect my friendships to know we were so different (if that makes sense to anyone). I also thought ‘King hereafter’ was a brilliant stand alone book and put a totally different spin on the story of Macbeth.

  11. June 13, 2012 8:17 am

    So good to hear from another DD reader. I love all her books. I never mention her to friends just in case they don’t like them – it might make me rethink what we have in common! I would also recommend ‘King Hereafter’ for a stand alone book.

  12. June 13, 2012 8:19 am

    Sorry – somehow lost the first comment so reposted – what an idiot!

  13. Simone permalink
    June 13, 2012 8:29 am

    I was given my first Lymond Chronicle (Disorderly Knights) when I was 15 and I was hooked. I quickly bought the rest of the series, and for the next 10 years would reread it from start to finish every year! I have all of her other books, but the Lymond Chronicles will always be my favourites even though I now only reread bits and pieces every few years or so. The House of Niccolo is also quite special although I found it required more of a commitment to continue although worth the effort. And the Dolly books are a very enjoyable easy read. King Hereafter once again showcases DD’s amazing storytelling but I’ve never felt the need to reread it…

  14. Connie Lyons permalink
    June 13, 2012 8:39 am

    Lucky you! Not only do you have the rest of Lymond before you, but after that, all of Niccolo. Years ago when I finally finished the very last book I actually burst into tears because there weren’t any more to look forward to.

  15. June 13, 2012 8:57 am

    Dunnett is truly not for everybody, but it’s so nice to see another fan :)
    Really liked your blog! Following you now!
    Please do visit my book blog, and if you like it, I hope you’ll follow… :)

  16. Helena James permalink
    June 13, 2012 9:01 am

    @ Connie–I can totally relate to the tears–I felt I would never read an author as good as Dunnett…that feeling has faded with time and finding the Aubrey/Maturin novels (and there are 20 of them!). When reading the Lymond books, I would refer back to passages in earlier ones to be sure I was understanding implications in later ones…good luck having them on e-readers.

  17. June 13, 2012 10:56 am

    I read The Lomond chronicles about 20 years ago. i found them by accident in the library. I loved it. i raced through them all then read them all again. I was over the moon when i found The House of Niccolo. I was slightly worried that the Niccolo series wouldn’t live up to my high expectations. Thankfully i wasn’t disappointed. However most books i read now are slightly disappointing because the lack the genius of Dorothy Dunnet. I am now reading them again this is the 5th time and im still loving it.

  18. Rita permalink
    June 13, 2012 11:29 am

    My mother introduced me to Lymond about 25 years ago. I struggled with the 1st book but stuck with it until I finished the rest of the series. I was hooked! I make it a point to read them at least once a year and still find new nuances that I’ve missed in previous readings. I consider it one of the greatest love stories ever written that will bring you to tears. I feel like I’m actually in the 16th century with the brilliant descriptions woven by Dunnett. I wish these books could be brought to life in a TV series. HBO would probably be the only ones who would do the series justice.

    • Simone permalink
      June 13, 2012 7:37 pm

      Hi Rita,
      While DD was alive, she always maintained that her books would never be made into movies. She wanted the characters to remain as the reader imagined them in their mind’s eye, and no to be limited to how a specific actor happened to look on screen – although I know many discussions were had on which actors would make the best Lymond, etc. Not sure who controls the rights now, or what their thoughts would be on movies…

      • simhedges permalink
        June 14, 2012 2:23 pm

        I think the rights are held by her sons. The rights were available during her lifetime, because she wrote to me once and told me that a Canadian TV company was investigating making a series (nothing came of it, and that was maybe 30 years ago now).

  19. Mary Pinto permalink
    June 13, 2012 12:11 pm

    Dorothy Dunnett, the only author you will ever need. I read Game of Kings in 1971 and have been in love with Francis Crawford of Lymond every day of my life since. He is the hero against which I measure all heroes; they all seem lacking. She also has the Johnson Johnson series, an 8 book prequel of sorts to Lymond, and King Hereafter which stands out as literary one-up-manship.

  20. Lesley permalink
    June 13, 2012 12:26 pm

    First read Game of Kings in my teens. Loved the book and have read the whole series. Definatley addictive. Now reading again as Ebooks and getting the series ready for my holiday readathon.

  21. June 13, 2012 12:39 pm

    Although a Brit, it was American Star Trek fans who first put me on to Dorothy Dunnett. In 1978 I won a thing called the “Star Trek Fan Fund” (A dollar and a vote and the winner gets to cross the pond!) My fellow ST fans were all raving about Lymond and gave me a copy of Game of Kings to get me started. I was hooked and everything else was put on the back burner until I’d read the entire series. Husband threatened divorce! Amazing author. I was so glad to meet her before she died. (A “Gathering” in Edinburgh after the publication of the last Nicolo book.) Have signed copies of the lot. I wish it was possible to read them all again for the first time.

    • Janet Miller permalink
      June 13, 2012 11:36 pm

      I was at the 1990 gathering! What a gracious Lady, there were about 200 people there and 5 of us were from California

  22. June 13, 2012 1:35 pm

    I read Lymond with a copy of Antonia Fraser’s book about Mary Queen of Scots on hand – and all the historical characters in Lymond were in the right place at the right time for the real history, with the fictional characters interacting with them. I don’t know how she did it! Copious notes, I’m given to understand. Wonderful stuff!

  23. Gemma McLuckie permalink
    June 13, 2012 2:09 pm

    Like others, I have been reading Dorothy Dunnet since early 1970s. I finally met her at a Washington book signing (drove 8 hours from Ohio to be there) — what a kind person. Such an amazing mind — how does she know how the 16th century looked, smelled and tasted? And able to blend humor and horror. A genius, one who is not appreciated as much as she should be.

  24. Anonymous permalink
    June 13, 2012 3:09 pm

    Loved the Lymond series, in fact it actually took me on a journey to Scotland to meet Mrs. Dunnett and a group from around the world who gathered to honor her writing talent!!!

  25. June 13, 2012 3:26 pm

    I adore the “Lymond” series – always have, ever since I encountered on (I think it was “Pawn in Frankincense”in the pile of books my mother brought home from the library when I was about 16 (so we’re talking 40 years ago!). I’ve read & re-read the whole series regularly ever since. “King Hereafter” is also excellent but I have to say that I didn’t enjoy the “Niccolo” series quite so much. The “Dolly” books are quite different – more light rom/coms with a dash of excitement & intrigue – but are also excellent (Johnson Johnson is another of my favourite fictional heroes).

  26. June 13, 2012 4:46 pm

    I first encountered “Game of Kings” while living in rural Missouri. We were lucky enough to have a Bookmobile – certainly the highlight of my week. I so loved the book that I was sorry it ended, but I didn’t know it was part of a series until talking to my mother some months later. I subsequently devoured the entire series, read “King Hereafter”, the entire “Dolly” series and then the “Niccolo” series. Lymond was by far my favorite of her characters, but I never read a Dorothy Dunnett book that disappointed me.

  27. June 13, 2012 5:33 pm

    This isn’t the era I write about (by a long stretch), but I really enjoyed your description of Lymond as “far-too-clever-for-his-own-good.”

  28. amy permalink
    June 13, 2012 8:47 pm

    Oh, if you’re just starting Lymond, you are in for a treat! It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, each book just gets better and better. It’s an addiction. Lymond’s love story is the most well-written one you will ever find. Dorothy Dunnett was a gift.

  29. Anonymous permalink
    June 13, 2012 9:53 pm

    You will not be able to stop till you are through all 6 of them, and then I suggest another 8 of ” house of Nicollo” . My friend introduced me to Dorothy and I am forever great full. It is an intellectual candy and is better every time you read it again! I read Lymonds all 6 books two times now with a break of a year, and enjoyed even more the second time around.

  30. June 15, 2012 7:27 am

    Oh! Sounds like fun! :-)

  31. June 17, 2012 12:32 pm

    Ah, this series sounds great! I have to keep it in mind for later.

  32. June 18, 2012 8:59 am

    By coincidence, it seems that you and I are starting to read these books at the same time! I’m so pleased to see that you enjoyed it – so did I – and I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about “Queen’s Play” (I’m about a hundred pages in, I think). If you want to see what I thought, I did a little post about it here:
    @Alex – it was one of the best duels I’ve read. Wonderful stuff.
    Happy reading!

  33. June 20, 2012 6:26 pm

    Just another person to promise you are in for a treat.

    My poor health has me feeling too dumb for Dunnett at the moment, but reading this makes me want to dive into her books all over again. I still have the Niccolo series to finish and I would love to read Lymond again.

    (When my best friend named her daughter Philippa, I just looked at her and said I know where that came from. She nodded and admitted it.)

  34. caroline mcilwaine permalink
    June 20, 2012 7:31 pm

    I adore Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles and think she has a genius for descriptive setting, narrative, depth of characters (I have never cared about any fictional characters the way I have about the Crawfords and Somervilles), wit and humour and suspense. And while she makes the reader work hard (she rarely explains the protaganists’ motives), there are so many rewards and delights in the experience. There are other emotions too: thinking of the loss of one character in a scene I have never read the equal of anywhere! (Still have to be brave to read that part.) Like so many others, I discovered DD by accident in the library during the early 80s and became hooked. I re-read Checkmate every year, and sometimes all six but have only ever re-read Gemini in the Niccolo series twice and never the other seven. It is still a remarkable story but has not affected me the same way for some reason. (I don’t think the ultimate heroine is a patch on the ultimate heroine in the Lymond chronicles perhaps.) I agree about being hesistant to recommend to friends; one friend gave GofK back to me after a few weeks and said she couldn’t find the story! And I had told her it was quite simply the best story I had ever read. I find it baffling when people can’t see/feel/sense/love these books. Their loss!

  35. Margaret Powling permalink
    July 20, 2012 12:41 pm

    OK, you’ve all sold it to me. I shall buy the first in the series … I’ve known about it for years but simply not read it!


  1. They don’t write ‘em like this anymore! Dorothy Dunnett’s “The Game of Kings” « The History Lady
  2. The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

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