The Game of Kings is the first of the Lymond Chronicles, a series of historical fiction novels by Dorothy Dunnett originally published in the 1960s and 70s. I’m actually quite surprised and disappointed that I had never come across these books before, especially as historical fiction is my favourite genre and for a few years was pretty much all I read. Anyway, I’ve discovered them now, which is the most important thing!
It’s 1547 and Francis Crawford of Lymond, accused of treason five years earlier, has returned to his home country of Scotland. As the leader of a band of outlaws he begins a search for the three men he believes might be able to clear his name. Lymond’s personal quest is played out during an important period in Scotland’s history: the English are hoping to marry the 4 year old Mary, Queen of Scots to 9 year old King Edward VI of England and unite the two countries – but the Scots are equally determined to prevent this from happening.
I really can’t tell you much more about the plot without spoiling the story, but I can promise you that this was one of the most gripping historical novels I’ve read for a long time – I was never bored for a minute. There are sad scenes, funny scenes, exciting scenes and moving scenes, not to mention the most thrilling sword fight I’ve ever read! I finished reading the book last weekend and since then have been trying to think of what I could possibly say about it that would do it justice…there were just so many things I loved: the wonderful plot, filled with twists and turns, surprises and revelations; the strong, memorable characters; the clever dialogue; and the accurate and well-researched historical setting. Most of all, of course, I loved Francis Crawford of Lymond, brilliant, charismatic and witty, but also very flawed and troubled. He is now high on my list of favourite fictional characters!
In fact, all of the characters in the book are incredibly well drawn. There’s so much I could say about Christian, Will, Sybilla, Kate, Richard, Mariotta and the others, but I won’t because it would be so much more fun for you to get to know these characters for yourself. They all felt like fully formed people rather than just words on a page and they lived on in my mind even when I wasn’t reading, which I always think is a sign of a good book. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the amazing sense of time and place Dorothy Dunnett creates. The amount of detail she goes into in building Lymond’s world is so impressive and everything feels completely accurate.
But much as I loved it, this was not the easiest of books to get into. There are a lot of characters to keep track of and some of them are referred to by more than one name or title, so the character list at the front of the book was very helpful! The novel also has a very, very complex plot and you really need to concentrate because the tiniest detail can turn out to be important later on. Lymond has a very good reason for almost everything he does but many of those reasons are not immediately obvious. Things that initially don’t make any sense suddenly take on new meaning a few chapters later and I found I had to keep re-reading previous sections so I could grasp what had happened.
I should also point out that Lymond’s dialogue is filled with quotes and references from history, literature, myth, nature, philosophy, nursery rhymes, songs and riddles (some of which are in French, Spanish, Latin or other languages, which are not translated for us). I soon realised there was no way I was going to understand all of the references, as unfortunately my education is sadly lacking in comparison to Lymond’s! Some of the things he says seem to mean nothing at all unless you recognise the context they are from, which in most cases I didn’t.
I know there are two Dorothy Dunnett Companions and other guides to the series that you can buy, but I think trying to read those along with The Game of Kings would have been too much for me on a first read! I decided just to enjoy the story and when I re-read the book, as I’m sure I will, I can look up the unfamiliar words and phrases then. In the meantime, there was always Google when I was desperate to know what something meant.
So, if you’re looking for a light, easy read The Game of Kings probably isn’t for you, but if you enjoy complex, well-written historical fiction then I hope you’ll give it a try. Although it could be challenging at times it was so rewarding and definitely worth the effort. I’ve already started reading the second in the series, Queen’s Play – I’m nearly 100 pages into it and loving it so far!