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)

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

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