The Game of Kings – Half-time thoughts

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…

dunnett 1

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?

* * * * *
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

12 thoughts on “The Game of Kings – Half-time thoughts

  1. Oh heck, I haven’t even started yet! I have been trying to tie up some reading loose ends as my reading has been a bit haphazard recently!
    Thanks for the reminder that I will need all my concentration plus my thinking cap on to keep up with it – I had forgotten that!

    Better get a move on!

  2. being a veteran DD reader, I learned early to ignore all the ‘learned’ bits and get on with the tale – the book will still be there after you’ve hit the exciting parts and you can go back – if you havent rushed on to the next book, dying to know what else Francis gets up to…………………
    and ITA about the Companion – it is an invaluable resource, but only when you have time – it’s not a ‘read-along’ guide by any means – and there are family trees in Volume II
    KEEP READING

    • Thanks. I’ve already found that I’m distracted less by all the references – but in the first couple of hundred pages I was looking quite a few up (to test the DDC partially).

  3. I was interested to read your thoughts on the companion, because I got one to use as I reread. On my first reading, I didn’t worry about the unfamiliar vocabulary and historical references, and most of the time I could follow the story fine. I haven’t started rereading yet but Jenny and I do plan to reread and have a review around the time you’re finishing up. I’m really looking forward to it!

    • I was more irritated by my lack of knowledge of history of that period – although the fact that the DDC assumed we knew what ‘Pinkie’ was did wind me up a little! Am loving the characters, and will race through the second half over Christmas I’m sure.

  4. Hiya – I (as with Bski above) consider myself a veteran DD reader. Do not worry about the “foreign” quotes too much – think on holidays abroad, you can’t speak their tongue….. The Companion is there to help – when I first finished the Lymond series (some years ago lol), I said that I would die for DD’s bibliography – DDC is almost that. Make it through to the pivotal books of Disorderly Knights and “Pawn” and beyond, you will love DD for ever ;)

  5. I’m going to catch up over Christmas! This will be the first time I’ll have read it with DDC alongside, but I do have the considerable advantage of an education that considered that anything that happened south of the Border wasn’t really worth knowing about :-)

    • Ho, ho, ho! The gaps in my history are so big – I got out of doing History ‘O’ Level – which was a coup at the time (couldn’t be timetabled with Music and Science as main interests). I suspect they still did just did Henry VIIi and Liz I without the bits in between. Anyway most of my history comes from historical novels, and is thus open to interpretation. ;)

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