Losing myself in the Lymond Chronicles

The Game Of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Dunnett Readalong

I reported on my experiences about reading the first half of The Game of Kings, the first volume in Dorothy Dunnett’s saga of 16th century life in the Scottish border country, here.  A month later I’ve finished the book and thus the first leg of my plans to read the series.  You’ll be glad to know at the outset that I plan to carry on, but first some closing  thoughts about Book 1 of the Lymond Chronicles…

dunnett 1During the first half, although I immediately enjoyed the derring-do of the errant Master of Culter, I did let myself get slightly bogged down in looking things up – all the foreign phrases, good Scottish dialect and cultural references from history, myths and legends through the ages.

I read the second half in a totally way – I just went for it, didn’t look anything up. Teresa had suggested to me that this was the best way for a first reading. You were right Teresa – total immersion made it great fun.

The second half starts with much politicking, bargaining, and plans for hostage taking and exchanging. Young Will Scott is toying with the idea of handing over Lymond to his estranged father after a falling out.

Scott’s reply was inaudible, and Lymond walked straight up to the boy. His riding clothes, swiftly tended since he had come from Tantallon, were sartorial perfection, his hair shone like glass and his voice glittered to match. He was impeccably, unpleasantly sober.
‘You have my warmest good wishes for any urgent need you may discover to injure me, personally. Just try it…’

I love the phrase ‘impeccably, unpleasantly sober’, so evocative.

Soon Lymond is again toying with the affections of his brother’s wife, Mariotta – who is promptly left by Richard and goes to the convent, from whence she is rescued by Lymond’s mother Sybilla…

There she found herself in the embarrassing position of the social suicide who wakes up after the laudanum: the skies had fallen and had done nothing but add to the general obscurity.

It’s sentences and phrases like the quotes above that I find really attractive in Dunnett’s writing.  However, sometimes I can do without the ‘listiness’ – one of my literary bugbears that makes me shout ‘Get on with it!’ in my head; take this quote for example, in which Will Scott and Lymond are arguing again …

 ‘I’m tired of a landscape with dragons,’ said Scott violently.
‘What, then? Retreat underground into hebetude; retreat under water like a swallow; retreat into a shell like a mollusc; retreat into the firmament like some erroneous dew….’

See what I mean?  By the way, I looked up ‘hebetude‘ – it means dullness or lethargy, and apparently is a word much beloved by Joseph Conrad, so there.

However, Dunnett does have a sense of humour, and a tendency to listiness and hyperbole is one of Lymond’s show-off qualities. He does it again with Gideon Somerville, an Englishman who proves invaluable to his cause…

 ‘The Scot, the Frencheman, the Pope and heresie, overcommed by Trothe have had a fall. Again yes.’
‘I wish to God,’ said Gideon with mild exasperation, ‘that you’d talk – just once – in prose like other people.’

That made me laugh!

I so enjoyed the second half of this novel, that I was really shocked when my favourite character from the first part, (apart from Lymond of course), came to an unfortunate end. (Don’t read my prior post if you don’t want to find out who it was).

The Game of Kings ends with Lymond being caught and hauled back to Edinburgh to stand trial for treason, and we finally find out why he was considered a treacherous renegade.  A fabulous court scene provides a fitting end to the book. Naturally – as there are six books in the series, you can safely assume that he gets off to live another day.  (9/10)

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dunnett 2

What’s Next?…
As you can guess from my enthusiastic reading of the first volume, I have become hooked into reading the rest of this series.  The books are densely written, and are all between four and five hundred pages, so I intend to carry on at the same rate of half a book per month which will take me up to the end of November.

So onwards with Queens Play, which sees Francis Lymond off to France to look after the young Queen at the court of Henri II.

Dunnett Readalong 2I’ll report back on the first half in mid-Feb, and the second mid-March.  I’m looking forward to it, and if any of you want to join in, you’re very welcome. I’ll make a Who’s Who bookmark again in the next few days. I found the one I made for The Game of Kings very useful.

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I inherited my copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kingsand Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett – Print on demand. Used and e-book formats also available.

Gaskella’s Books of 2012

Today is one of those dates that can only happen once every hundred years – 12-12-12, so it’s an ideal time to review my reading year. Yes, in common with many other bloggers, critics and reviewers I’ve picked out the best bits, so here are my personal top ten books that I’ve read in 2012, plus a few close-run titles and ones that disappointed.  The links go to my original reviews.  As always, I’ve devised categories for fun so that my list has variety:
Gaskella's Best of 2012
Best Fairy Tale: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. One of the first books I read this year, and one of the very best. This story of a longed-for child appearing in the wilds of Alaska is truly magical.

Best Noir: The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Dark thoughts run deep in this 1950s novel of a Police Officer with a bad mind.

Best of Beryl: The Bottle Factory Outing by the late, great Beryl Bainbridge. Reading this vicious comedy from 1974 back in March, gave me the idea for running the “Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week” in June. I’ve still got half of her books to read, so may well do it again next year …

Best Re-Read: Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. Re-reading my favourite book from childhood was a brilliant experience. I could really understand why it affected and scared me so then, but could appreciate its depth and sublety too. Timeless!

Best Three Hankie Book: My Policeman by Bethan Roberts. This novel of a love triangle in 1950s Brighton made me cry. None of the three involved ultimately were happy and I found that profoundly sad.

Best Contemporary Crime Novel: City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris. Set in Saudi Arabia, I, and our Book Group, found this mystery totally absorbing – such a different way of life.

Best Crossover Title: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I thought this novel about a young boy dealing with his mother’s illness was exceptional. Our book group didn’t quite agree – but à chacun son goût, as they say en France.

Best Future Cult Classic: Lightning Rods by Helen De Witt. Not for those who shock easily, this clever satire can almost make you believe anything could happen.

Best for Chucklesome Comfort Reading: The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates. Kentish ‘Larkin’ about – Perfick entertainment.

Best Arty Biography: Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes. I shouldn’t really include another Beryl Bainbridge related title, but this recent biography is just so fascinating, I couldn’t resist.

That’s my top ten. If pushed, I’d possibly opt for The Snow Child as my absolute favourite, although Lightning Rods comes very close.

A few that didn’t quite make the top ten were John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk, The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon, and Winter Journal by Paul Auster.
Other highlights have been discovering Edna O’Brien and Dorothy Dunnett, both of whom will feature in my reading to come, I know.

By way of contrast, there were a few titles that I found disappointing – Laurent Binet’s critical success HHhH just irritated me, although I do recognise its originality; The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus was very experimental and interesting, but didn’t work out, and lastly that overhyped first grown-up novel by JK Rowling that was OK, but underwhelmed.

There you have it.  Of course, with a few weeks of the year left, I may yet add to these lists. As usual too, I will be looking at the stats of my reading towards the end of the year – Yes, I do that for fun!

Do share your thoughts on my choices above, and feel free to tell me what I should read next year that you loved this year too.

 

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?

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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

“Lymond is back.”

These are the first words of the first book, The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett’s in her series, The Lymond Chronicles.  I’ve not read any of Dunnett’s novels, and back at the end of August I mused on whether I should get stuck into her books.  The response was tremendous and very encouraging – thank you.

So today, which happens to be International Dorothy Dunnett Day (IDDD), organised by the Dorothy Dunnett Society – I shall embark upon reading the saga.

I previously asked for your advice on whether I should dive in and immerse myself in the books, or take it at a more leisurely readalong pace. There was plenty of interest in reading along, but many of you recommended plunging into the books.  I would usually take the plunge route, not being good at restraining myself, so I’ve come up with a middle path which allows for some concentrated reading, but also comes up for breath …

The first book has four parts of roughly 190, 90, 90 and 200 pages (in my edition), so I propose to simply split it in half and read the first 2 parts this month, and report back on around December 10th, then to read the latter parts over Christmas and report back on around January 10th, so we have two hearty chunks of just under 300 pages each.

My friend Claire (@clairemccauley) has lent me a copy of the first Dorothy Dunnett Companion, so I shall be dipping into that too as needed for reference, and may report back on it in a separate post. I also intend to tweet my thoughts as I read along – see @gaskella.

My fingers are crossed that I’ll love it and will want to carry on with Queen’s Play and the rest of the series at a similar rate of pages to read each month. Please feel free to readalong with me (and Claire).  I’m really looking forward to it, and what better way to celebrate my 750th post than starting a readalong.

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I inherited/borrowed my copies of the books. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kings: The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett – Print on demand, s/hand copies available.
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion
by Elspeth Morrison – O/P but s/hand copies available.

Should I do Dunnett?

One author I have yet to read is Dorothy Dunnett.  I own the first few volumes of the Lymond chronicles thanks to my late Mum. She enjoyed them very much and was re-reading them back then. They are renowned for not being an easy read though, requiring perseverance and frequent referring back or to a guide to remind yourself of who’s who and what’s what.

For anyone who’s not heard of the Lymond Chronicles, they are set during the middle of the 16th century, and tell the story of Francis Crawford of Lymond, a Scottish nobleman. They feature a lot of real historical characters too, and the action ranges from Scotland across Europe and the Mediterranean. There are six volumes in the series – each of around 500 pages.

She has a heavyweight cadre of fans too. Before she died in 2001, she set up the Dorothy Dunnett Society; they now host an ‘International Dorothy Dunnett Day’ or IDDD which will be on November 10th this year.

Before I read up a little about her and discovered the existence of the above society, I toyed with the idea of inviting you lot to join me in reading the first in the sequence, The Game of Kings. It has four parts of roughly 190, 90, 90 and 200 pages – the last can be split again into two.  Then if we liked it, we could do the second volume Queens’ Play.  We could take it in leisurely fashion, starting on IDDD (Nov 10th) and regrouping in the New Year to review the first and largest chunk, then the smaller chunks over the next four months to the end of April …

… then I read DGR’s post from 2007 and saw the problems Lynne and her co-readers had with ‘Dunnettmania’.  It all sounds more than a little daunting. Added to that, all the books are out of print in the UK, (although it is in e-book format), and secondhand copies are available – at a price…

So dare I?  Dare we?  Have you done Dunnett?

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kings
Queens’ Play
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion