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The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett (thoughts)

January 3, 2013

The Disorderly Knights

My first read of 2013 turned out to be epic: Dorothy Dunnett’s The Disorderly Knights is not for the faint hearted. Shifting from Scotland to France to Malta to Libya and back to Scotland, with a plot whose subplots need a family tree, and enough characters to populate a small town, not to mention its six hundred page length, this is a brick of a novel. It’s also deliciously rewarding, and my favourite of the Lymond Chronicles so far. I was craving a smart, old-fashioned story that I could lose myself in, and Dunnett certainly delivered that. In fact, with a hundred pages to go, I found myself trying to convince my eyes to stay open longer because I was so desperate to discover the denouement (I lost that battle, which is probably good, since being half asleep doesn’t make Dunnett’s prose any easier to follow). It feels like all of the groundwork Dunnett laid in the first two novels is now paying off, so that the plot can come into its own instead of being overshadowed with all of the background information. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series, although as always I wish she was a bit kinder to Lymond! It set a wonderful tone for this year’s reading.

Speaking of which, recently I’ve been reading a bit differently. Towards the tail end of 2012, I read the interesting How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. While it’s primarily concerned with nonfiction, in the chapter on fiction Adler highly recommended reading a novel in as few sittings as possible. The aim is to immerse yourself as much as possible in the author’s and characters’ world, so that you can get the full effect before making any judgements. Since I usually read books in a rotation, I decided to try out reading my fiction straight through. And to my delight, I’ve found it takes me back to my childhood reading style. I’m definitely more involved in the stories I’m reading, and for some reason I also find it easier to acknowledge when a novel isn’t for me and to set it down instead of dutifully pressing on. It’s been an interesting exercise, and one that’s injected new life into my reading.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett: this should go without saying, but just in case, definitely read the two earlier Lymond books before starting Disorderly Knights! This is the first in the series.
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: if you end up craving more epic historical fiction, turn to this wonderful Ghosh novel. Similarities include a vast range of characters, an exhaustively researched historical context, enough subplots to keep you on your toes, and a richness that calls out for rereading.
  • Queen of Scots by John Guy: this is an interesting, scholarly biography of Mary that obviously includes background on the times she lived in. I read it a few years ago, and what I remember of it has served me well since I began the Lymond Chronicles. The second in the series (Queen’s Play is more directly concerned with her court and intrigues, but she’s at least in the background of all of them.
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt: I haven’t actually talked about Possession on my blog, despite my love for Byatt. But this is another historical novel that is frighteningly intelligent and completely immersed in its era. Unlike Dunnett or Ghosh, Byatt focuses on personal relationships and literature instead of politics and epic scenes. But she delivers a long novel that you’ll love getting lost in.
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26 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2013 4:56 pm

    I’ve found that it is better for me to immerse myself in one fiction book at a time and to read in large chunks. It really helps with attaching to the story and characters, and with recall. I do have problems finding large chunks of time some days though. You are right about that reading style taking you back to childhood!

  2. January 3, 2013 5:31 pm

    That advice about reading novels in few sittings is interesting. Of course, how much I like a book also tends to influence how many sittings it is divided into!

  3. January 3, 2013 6:41 pm

    I love reading fiction in as close to a single sitting as I can. It’s hard now though! I take the subway and that doesn’t lend itself to chunks of reading time. Whenever I can sit down and read a book all in one go, it feels amazing.

    Also, this sounds good. I’m adding Dorothy Dunnett to my list of library books to get on my Nook.

  4. January 3, 2013 9:41 pm

    Excellent choice, Eva! I don’t read a lot of big, historical fiction, but I’d agree that Possession is fantastic. I have “How to read a book” sitting on the shelf in front of me right now… perhaps a meander through it is in order.

  5. simhedges permalink
    January 3, 2013 10:33 pm

    “I wish she was a bit kinder to Lymond” – Don’t get your hopes up

    • caroline mcilwaine permalink
      January 4, 2013 4:38 pm

      Not forgetting that soon there are others who strive to bear some of his burdens – even if he discourages them! (“discourage’ being a euphemism of course when talking about Francis Crawford!)

  6. January 3, 2013 10:36 pm

    Historical fiction has, for whatever reason, never really been my thing, so I must admit that I’ve never read anything by Dunnett! But I do always love when you find one of those books that just has that excellent old-fashioned storytelling that utterly whisks you away and enthralls you until the very end. Really gives meaning to the whole “lost in a good book” idea!

    And I’m glad to hear your first read of 2013 was so good! I am at a crossroads with mine: it’s one for professional review, but I am really not enjoying it… eep!

  7. January 4, 2013 9:37 am

    I’ve started making a more concerted effort to just read one book at a time which also lends itself to getting deeper into a book’s world. It’s also meant that I am more likely to finish books rather than having my attention drawn off to another more interesting book half way through. I think I read too slowly to tackle “bricks” very often, though you do make a case for Dorothy Dunnett!

  8. Bski permalink
    January 4, 2013 9:43 am

    oh Steph, how wonderful to have the chance to encounter Lymond for the first time! Dive in, you wont regret it. And Simon, of course (he’s big in Dunnett circles) says it so well – the next 3 books are even more trying for our hero Francis! But you will come away energized and devastated all at once. I’m a Dunnett fan from way back and she never disappoints!

  9. January 4, 2013 12:50 pm

    This is one of the best of the series imho. I’m always in doubt between it and Pawn in Frankincense, which seems to be everyone’s favorite. You’re in for an emotional roller-coaster!

    • caroline mcilwaine permalink
      January 4, 2013 4:33 pm

      Checkmate is my favourite! I re–read it every year… if not all six in the series…

  10. January 4, 2013 1:11 pm

    Nice review, Eva! ‘Possession’ is one of my alltime favourite books. It is a book I want to re-read again. I also want to read all of Byatt’s books someday.

  11. January 4, 2013 2:21 pm

    Sea of Poppies and Possession are both on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I first read Ghosh last year (The Hungry Tide) and loved him!

  12. January 4, 2013 4:00 pm

    I’ve started my year with a Dunnett novel too – Gemini, the last book in the House of Niccolo series! I’m glad you enjoyed this one. I love all six of the Lymond Chronicles but I think this is probably my favourite.

  13. caroline mcilwaine permalink
    January 4, 2013 4:31 pm

    It is such a revealing book , isn’t it! But wait for Pawn in Frankincense – I still have to be brave to re-read parts of that amazing book. DD is a master of suspense, and poetry and prose and grand, sweeping storylines and presents romance and love in a way rarely seen outside of her books, and even though she has no qualms about killing off folks, I forgive her because she has given me so much reading joy and as I always say, I have never cared about any other characters in books the way I care about the Crawfords and Somervilles. They are actually quite real for me! I have never felt that way about the Niccolo series. Perhaps because the ‘heroine’ is so unlikable and the tomes so much more dense and oft times aggravating! DD fans are divided in their devotion to either series. I’d be a happy woman if I could ever find anything to read again that matched the Lymond series.

  14. boardinginmyforties permalink
    January 4, 2013 6:21 pm

    I’ve had the first in the series on my shelf for ages. You are tempting me to read it this year!

  15. January 5, 2013 12:39 am

    This sounds so good!

  16. January 5, 2013 7:10 am

    I think that advice for reading fiction is probably very wise, and I love that taking it is paying off for you! I know I miss so much in my reading life because I just don’t have any big chunks of time (20 minutes is considered bliss!), and I have to break up my reading between books because I have to read so much for the kiddos’ school…but I’m not complaining. I know my day will come around.

  17. January 5, 2013 8:22 am

    I’m really hoping to take the time in 2013 and read The Game of Thrones. So many of my favorite bloggers have loved these books that I just can’t resist. I love the idea of immersing myself in a book. It isn’t easy for me with my little ones but I bet it would help if I quit reading two different books at the same time :) Great review!!!

  18. January 5, 2013 11:06 am

    I was just reading an author spotlight of Daniel Abraham in the latest issue of Lightspeed Magazine where he is answering questions about a particular short story based in part on economics. It the spotlight he recommended Dorothy Dunnet’s House of Niccolo series as it too has an economics base. Not sure if you’ve read any of these stories but you might enjoy this fantasy short story. Here is the link:

    http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/the-cambist-and-lord-iron-a-fairy-tale-of-economics/

  19. January 6, 2013 9:45 am

    Several other bloggers have been talking about Dorothy Dunnett also, an author that I have heard of but never read. I’m adding her to my to-get list, hoping my library will have a copy of the first one.

    I like what Adler says about reading novels with as few breaks as possible. I used to read books like that, and lately have been trying it again. I think it does let you wander in that world with the characters and be immersed in it. I like how you say it lets you know if it is for you, also. You do know that The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was written after Jacobs read How to Read a Book, and is his argument that reading isn’t just for information or improving one’s self, but should involve pleasure. He says How To Read a Book was written in manual like form, a guide to reading. How did you find it, Eva?

    • January 6, 2013 10:04 am

      I didn’t realise that about the Jacobs! How to Read a Book is very much a manual, but Mortimer says early on that people read for many reasons and he’s only addressing one such reason in the book because there’s no need to teach people how to read for entertainment, etc. It’s also very focused on nonfiction of the kind you might encounter in a Great Books course, preparing readers for how to encounter, say, philosophy. I think someone who had no background in philosophy whatsoever and picked up Leviathan might be freaked out and put it back. How to Read a Book gives those kinds of readers a framework for understanding, processing, and evaluating books they might otherwise give up on. I found it very valuable for what it was, if very steeped in old school academia (i.e.: every pronoun/generic reference to a person was male) and am glad I read it. It sounds like Jacobs might have set up a bit of a straw man though in his description.

  20. January 6, 2013 1:14 pm

    I used to do a rotation too, and I still do it to a degree but I’ve found that I like reading fiction better when it’s in larger chunks. This is something I’ll probably focus on more in the coming year – reading one fiction at a time, regardless of what other stuff calls my name.

  21. January 6, 2013 2:35 pm

    I definitely want to be better about reading fiction in large chunks. I know that I have imperiled and perhaps even have ruined a few reading experiences by picking them up in very short bursts.

  22. Steve permalink
    January 8, 2013 5:12 pm

    Hi Eva, I would love to be able to read in large chunks. But with a full time job and four kids that won’t happen for some time. So for the moment I read bite sized bits. Does “How to Read a Book” discuss reading fiction in any other way than in just a few sittings?

    • January 9, 2013 1:42 am

      Hi Steve! I completely understand re: not being able to read in big chunks. Did you see my reply to Susan’s comment a couple up? How to Read a Book is mainly about nonfiction & reading for self-education so I’m not sure it’d be super relevant to you. But there was a chapter on fiction reading; I honestly can’t remember any other specific advice. Sorry about that! You might enjoy The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. :)

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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