They (mostly) don’t write ’em like this anymore! Dorothy Dunnett’s “The Game of Kings”

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

The closest thing I’ve read to this in terms of pace, complexity and storytelling might be George R. R. Martin‘s “The Game of Thrones” series.

The Game of Kings is Dunnett’s first book in the six-volume “Lymond Chronicles.”   It is the magnificent tale of Francis Crawford of Lymond, a noble, a spy, and in many ways a classic anti-hero.  If I were casting him  (and I do wish someone would because it would make an epic television series) he’d look like Jude Law or Ewan McGregor but behave like Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler.  Lymond is an intriguing character, full of contradictions and his own peculiar code of morality and conduct.  He is loved and hated (sometimes at the same time by the same person) with an intensity that burns off the page, and which I do not think we see too often in novels. God it is good!

The story begins with Lymond’s secret return to Scotland following a disgrace and treason that we do not fully understand for much of the novel.  Its September 1547 and the eve of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh,  one of several major battles between the Scots and English during the “rough wooing” of Henry VIII and later the Duke of Somerset to acquire the young Mary, Queen of Scots as a bride for the future Edward VI.  It’s a period in history where the loyalties of many Scots nobles were divided.  The English granted lands and titles to several in return for supporting the marriage of Queen Mary to Edward VI.  At the same time,  Mary’s mother Marie of Guise, Dowager Queen of Scotland, was negotiating with the French for support against the English, and for Mary’s betrothal to the Dauphin Francis, son of Henry II of France. Hence, the Game of Kings.

Most novels about Mary, Queen of Scots – including my work in progress – spend little time on the period between the battle of Pinkie in September 1547 and Mary’s departure to France a year later in August 1548.  Dunnett navigates this time period in a way that gave me a fresh perspective on events during that time period and just how tense the political situation was in Scotland.  Lymond’s quest to clear his name is set against the fascinating backdrop of battles and raids between the Scots and English, and the shifting loyalties of the Douglases, Lennoxes and other noble families.  Margaret Douglas (daughter of Margaret Tudor) is particularly well-drawn as the duplicitous Countess of Lennox.

Lymond runs a band of outlaws, who are wonderful, colorful supporting characters.  He is aided on the quiet by his mother, Sybilla, and a long-time family friend and quasi-love interest, Christian Stewart.  He’s beset by English troops, his own brother and even his protegé, Will.   Lymond does clear his name, and the complex plot with twists and turns is a thrilling read, full of drama, tension and surprise. You will stay up late reading til the end.

I have had this book in paperback on my shelf for years upon years, and when I opened it, I hated the old-fashioned typesetting and found it difficult to read, so downloaded it to my Kindle.  So check the typeface and make sure you are happy with your paperback/hardback.  It turns out I used the Kindle dictionary quite often and loved Dunnett’s masterful vocabulary, which is missing from so much contemporary fiction.

There are two other difficult things about this novel, both worth surmounting to enjoy it.  First, there’s a plethora of Classic illusion that went over my little pedestrian head.  There is a Dorothy Dunnett reader for this series, and I think I wish I’d purchased it –though it would have distracted me to stop and look up all the allusions.  Second, it was written about 40-50 years ago and the style of fiction writing is a bit dated, compared with styles today.  But the story is so good, you can, and should get past this.

Loved it.  When you read it, stop by and let me know how you found it.

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33 comments on “They (mostly) don’t write ’em like this anymore! Dorothy Dunnett’s “The Game of Kings”

  1. christine says:

    I am a fan of this series since they came out in the 70s and I wonder what your opinion of the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series. I think they are a cheap ripoff written by someone ignorant of Scotland.

    • Hi Christine – I can’t imagine why no one has thought to make the Lymond Chronicles into a series. It would be soooooo good, assuming it was done right.

      I have not read the Outlander series for a long time. I read probably the first 3-4 books, but once they were in America and the characters got older it got a little ‘same ol’, same ol’ to me. That said, I read those books before Lymond and I very much enjoyed the first couple – but I like ‘time slip’ novels. Diana Gabaldon now has tours in Scotland, but she lives in New Mexico or Arizona or somewhere like that and is an American, so she probably is less familiar. I didnt’ at the time of reading feel thtat

      Gabaladon and Dunnett are very different types of authors. Dunnett requires a companion reader to understand all the allusions to the Ancients and other literature. Gabaldon is a bit more of our time.

      But here’s the thing. I thought I would hate Reign, the CW Drama about Mary, Queen of Scots. And I do loathe the inaccuracy, but do find it good fun. So I suppose given how much I like historical drama I’ll tune into Outlander when the series hits my TV. 🙂 Come back and let me know what you think!

  2. Sharla Utz says:

    I finished the Lymond series four days ago. I read the first three books months apart, but the last three in one mad dash. They just keep getting better and more compelling. I’m still in their grip and can’t read anything else; I found your blog because I’ve been spend my free time this weekend searching Dunnett discussion groups and reading reviews and blogs about the books, trying to “share” the experience. No question I will read the Niccolo series, too. After I read this one again with the Companion book, to “get” more of the references and foreign phrases.

    • There is a good group on Facebook. And I’m always happy to talk about Lymond! Gripping, fantastic works.

    • Wendy Wartes says:

      I chuckled when I read Sharla’s comment that she’s, “still in their grip and can’t read anything else.” Years later after reading both series twice through, I still find it hard to read anything else as they all seem silly and shallow, especially the Outlander first book.

  3. Valerie Pagano says:

    You have to keep reading to find out what happens. Later, the ramifications start to dawn. DD has no equal in this field, I think.

  4. Rachel Kesterton says:

    I want to read this book! I shall add it to my huge piile of books I haven’t yet got round to.
    Rachel x

  5. simhedges says:

    “He’s beset by English troops, his own brother and even his protegé, Will.”, I agree, but would just reword this slightly to “He’s beset by, and besets, English troops, his own brother and even his protegé, Will”. He’s big on besetting, is Lymond.

  6. Pat Sibley says:

    I read the entire series in the ’70s (had to wait for the last book to be written to find out what happens). Dunnett is an exceptional writer–check out her other historical novels as well as her mysteries (she did a series there, too). I still re-read all her books as I find new details and nuances that I’d missed before. I’ve even visited a lot of the places she describes in Scotland, France, and England. One day I hope to get to Istanbul to see Topkapi.

  7. LizR says:

    I also found Lymond in the early 80’s and now own 3 sets of the Lymond Chronicles and 1 set of the Niccolo series. Love Lymond beyond all reason :-). Met Lady Dunnett on her book tour to the US many years ago. Lovely, lovely lady who changed our lives, and spoiled me for all other fiction. Nobody lives up to Dunnett IMHO.

  8. whatmeread says:

    Hi, Geri, I don’t know if you’re interested in this, but I have posted my review of Queen’s Play:

  9. Wendy Perdue says:

    Re-reading Lymond and then on to a re-read of Niccolo. I read Pillars of the Earth by Follett, before them, some 5 years back. Picked up the sequel to Pillars and found it was like reading a first grader’s book. Drival. So, so spoiled by Dunnett. Think I may never find another author besides Dickens and Steinbeck to enjoy as much. Willing to take suggestions.

    • Hard to beat Dickens, right? I have to admit I found the fantasy fiction series “Game of Thrones” full of some amazing plot, characterization, probably which it was picked up by HBO. I saw it on TV, never having heard of it, and at about episode 7 I realized I had to buy the books. Amazing plot twists, worthy of Dunnett, who I would be $25 Thrones author GRRMartin read!

      As a one-off, not a series, I did enjoy Cathedral by the Sea, which you will see reviewed on this blog, and compared it to Follett.
      Thanks for stopping!

  10. Geri says:

    Love love love this series; have read it multiple times. Also went to Istanbul last year and had to trace Philippa’s journey at Topkapi. Sigh.

  11. Pamela Love Dahse says:

    I so loved the whole series,,, I found them in a book store window in 1983 when I lived in Scotland! I have read and re-read them several times and headed to the library this morning to put my bid in for another read! And you are so very right they don’t write them like this anymore!

  12. Michael Brain says:

    The idea of ‘casting’ a film version of GOK or the later volumes was discussed at length in the Dunnett letterzine M& K in the 1980’s and decided any version would disappoint the minds eye view most ( lady) fans had of Lymond.Many of the ‘allusions’ and poems, French quotes etc can be found in Elspeth Morrisons’ ”The Dorothy Dunnett Companion Vol 1 ISBN 0-7181-3775-2( and later Vol 2), both available on Amazon.

  13. Bski says:

    ah, yes, another one bites the dust! :)) There are 6 books in the Lymond Saga, which I read as they were published in the 60s-70s. You might like to look up The Dorothy Dunnett Society online and read about our recent trip to Istanbul in celebration of Pawn in Frankincense………….:D

    • Thanks – I thought there were 7! I did take a quick look at the DD site today and saw that she was born down the road from my mum and dad (Kinghorn and Cardenden)… I’ll go back. Thanks for stopping. Geri

  14. caroline mcilwaine says:

    Welcome to the obsession! There quite simply is nothing like this series or the remarkable Dorothy Dunnett. I discovered her in the 80s and re-read the Lymond chronicles every year. Most fans find Game of Kings the hardest to get through as DD was finding her feet as an author, so if you loved this novel you are in for the reading adventure of a lifetime across the series. I love, love, love these books! Caroline in Oz

    • Hi Caroline, thanks for stopping by! I am part way through Queen Play (or Gambit as I have seen elsewhere) and am loving it. Again, Dunnett takes a nugget of Mary, Queen of Scots life and explodes it into a whole novel. (I’m just at the part with the wolfhound.) I’ll keep going…and let you know what I think here. Geri in USA

      • caroline mcilwaine says:

        Pawn in Frankincense and Checkmate are my favourites, although there are parts of both novels that still require me to toughen up and be brave even though I know what’s coming. I often say I have never cared about fictional characters the way I do about the Crawfords and Somervilles. Enjoy! (And, yes, you have joined a fan club!!) :> Caroline

  15. whatmeread says:

    This series has been one of my favorites since I first read it in the 1990s. At that time, it was going out of print and I had to look all over to find all the books in the series.

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