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Dunnett Readalong

Phew! I’ve made it to the halfway point of reading my first Dorothy Dunnett book, The Game of Kings – volume one of the Lymond Chronicles.  At one stage, I wasn’t sure I’d make it in time for the dates I’d planned…  If you’re joining in, how did you do?

Although I enjoyed the book right from the start, at first I could only read a few pages at a time before having to stop and look things up, be it ancient Scottish words, a French proverb, a reference to myths and legends of antiquity.  Gradually though, I was able to immerse myself in the text, concentrating on the plot and character rather than looking up all the learned references and consequently I could up my pace of reading.

Actually, I found the Dorothy Dunnett Companion – an A-Z encyclopedia of all this information very irritating – it covers most of her books in one tome, so includes the Niccolo books, another series too, and thus has to be selective in what it includes…

For instance, characters often talk about ‘Pinkie’ – but it wasn’t in the DDC. My knowledge of mid-16th century politics didn’t really extend beyond who became king after Henry VIII died, and having read, as a teenager, Jean Plaidy’s novel The Royal Road to Fotheringay about the young Mary Queen of Scots. I resorted to Wikipedia and now know that The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was a decisive win for the English led by the Lord Protector, Somerset in 1547.

The DDC is also purely an A-Z – I’d have liked family trees of characters, plus a chronology, and for the Niccolo books to be in a separate volume.

But I am getting ahead of myself – what of the book itself?  First though, to any Dunnettophiles reading, please do forgive me for my irreverent comparisons and referencing of my own cultural mores…

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Within the first few pages, I was already a fan of Lymond, the Master of Culter, who has snuck back into Scotland, even though he has a price on his head.  He was like Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (without the giving to the poor bit, although he does look after his men).  A mere couple of pages later though, he had turned into Lord Flashheart, (from Black Adder II – “Woof! Where haven’t I been!”), as we are introduced to Mariotta, the wife of his older brother, and get to see Lymond properly for the first time …

Held close to him as she was, she found his eyes unavoidable. They were blue, of the deep and identical cornflower of the Dowager’s. And at that, the impact of knowledge stiffened her face and seized her pulses.  “I know who you are! You are Lymond!”
Applauding, he released her. “I take back the more personal insults if you will take back your arm without putting it to impious uses. There. Now, sister-in-law mine, let us mount like Jacob to the matriarchal cherubim above. Personally,” he said critically, “I should dress you in red.”
So this was Richard’s brother. Every line of him spoke, palimpsest-wise with two voices. The clothes, black and rich, were vaguely slovenly; the skin sun-glazed and cracked; the fine eyes slackly lidded; the mouth insolent and self-indulgent. He returned the scrutiny without rancour.
“What had you expected? A viper, or a devil, or a ravening idiot; Milo with the ox on his shoulders, Angra-Mainyo prepared to do battle with Zoroaster, or the Golden Ass? Or didn’t you know the family colouring? Richard hasn’t got it. …

So we get a hint of Lymond the roué, Lymond as Gok (fashion guru), but also that he is educated – all those ancient references.  Also, we see several examples of Dunnett’s ‘listy’ style of writing – something I took issue with in JK Rowling’s recent novel The Casual Vacancy, (reviewed here). At least I was being educated by Dunnett in her lists.

What of the other characters?  I’ve already grown very fond of Lady Christian Stewart, goddaughter of Lady Fleming, the Queen’s aunt.  She’s blind, but is resilient and has a sense of adventure, and although she doesn’t know it, has a thing for Lymond.  But the person who gets all the best lines is Sybilla, Lymond’s mother – think Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. Here are a couple of her best …

“Perhaps it’s lucky then,” said Sybilla, “that this criminal has cheated his way out of favour with every party in Europe. Did you try some brazil on your curtains?”  And this time, Lady Buccleuch took the hint.

“My dear man,” said Sybilla next day, placidly stitching before Earl John’s big fire. “Admit you’ve never had to live with eight children on an island, and every one with the instincts of a full-grown lemming.”

There is a character with a comedy accent – who of course is English. Lord Grey has a lisp - “Perhapth,” said Grey icily, “Don Luith might be given thome help to clean hith feet and a chancth to dreth, and then we will have Mr Thcott brought up.”

We also have soldier types like Lymond’s mercenary chief of staff – Turkey Mat, who    puts his finger on it when Will tells Lymond his men are restless, “Too much intrigue, sir, and too little rape: the boys are as unnatural nervy as water fleas…. And besides,” he added practically, “we’re nigh out of beer.” “

As you can see, we have a rich cast of characters; so many with similar names that my bookmark came in useful.  I’m also pretty useless at chess – all the chapter titles are chess-related. I do know the basic moves, but wouldn’t know if these references form a proper game or not. The plot is equally convoluted; so I shall save my thoughts on that until January when I’ve finished the book.

If you’ve read this book before, or are reading along with me – do let me know your thoughts. Here are a few things for you to consider…

  • How are you getting on with the language, learned references and dense writing style?
  • How is your understanding of the history of the period?
  • Who is your favourite character so far, and why?
  • Are you going to read the rest of the book?

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I inherited my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kings: The Lymond Chronicles
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion by Elspeth Morrison
The Royal Road to Fotheringay (Mary Stuart Series: Volume 1) by Jean Plaidy

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