Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Queens’ Play is the second of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. A few weeks ago I talked about how much I loved the first in the series, The Game of Kings, and I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed this one too, though maybe not quite as much. I never know how to write about the second book in a series as it’s very difficult to discuss it without giving away some of the things that happened in the previous book. So, while I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling too much, if you haven’t already read The Game of Kings then you might prefer to do so before reading any more of my posts on the series.

Queens’ Play starts two years after the end of The Game of Kings. Mary of Guise, the mother of seven-year-old Mary Queen of Scots, has asked Francis Crawford of Lymond to join them in France and help to protect the little Queen from a plot against her life. However, Lymond’s face and name are too well known in France and so he goes undercover, disguised as one of a party of Irishmen who are visiting the French court.

As with The Game of Kings, I was very impressed by the complexity of the characters and the intricate twists and turns of the plot, but Queens’ Play also gives us a vivid depiction of the court of Henri II with its splendour, extravagance and corruption. There are plenty of exciting, dramatic scenes and set pieces too – Lymond’s adventures in France include a hunt involving a cheetah and a wolfhound, a moonlit race across the rooftops of Blois, a wrestling match (I would never have thought I could find wrestling so thrilling to read about!), stampeding elephants and more than one attempted poisoning.

In the time between finishing Queens’ Play and posting this review I have been reading the third book, The Disorderly Knights (halfway through at the moment and loving it), and I’m already starting to see the importance of Queens’ Play in the context of the series. We are introduced to some new recurring characters and Lymond also learns a lot of important lessons in France – as well as battling some personal demons, he starts to understand what it means to be a leader, to care for the men under your control and to take responsibility for what happens to them.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I thought Queens’ Play was a great book but I didn’t love it as much as I loved The Game of Kings. I think part of the problem was that at the end of The Game of Kings I had felt we were finally starting to see the real Francis Crawford, yet almost from the very beginning of Queens’ Play he was pretending to be somebody else – and although I was still enjoying the story, I wanted Lymond, not his alter ego. Still, as far as I can tell, a lot of people consider this to be the weakest book in the series, so if that’s true I’m really looking forward to the others!

19 thoughts on “Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Lisa says:

    This book introduces one of my favorite characters in the whole Chronicles, Archie Abernethy. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it enough to carry on to Disorderly Knights – if you don’t have the other three books lined up already, you might want to get them (speaking from experience).

      • Lisa says:

        The last four books of the Chronicles are such a roller-coaster – I don’t think I’ve ever had such an intense reading experience.

        I’ve been mulling over Alex’s comment, and I think in a sense we do see the “real” Lymond in this book. The two different personas are very much part of who he is – the exuberance of Thady Boy and the cool, intelligent, controlled Vervassal. The Thady Boy side has been pretty firmly squelched, though.

  2. Alex says:

    Queens’ Play is imho the weakest of the series, probably because we see so little of the “real” Lymond. The Disorderly Knights is probably my favorite… or maybe it’s Pawn?.. or Ringed Castle? ARGH!

  3. FleurFisher says:

    I’ve noticed the way you’re progressing through this series – it speaks volumes for the quality of the books.

    • Helen says:

      Definitely! I often read the first book in a series and don’t pick up the second one until months later, if ever. It’s unusual for me to want to read through a whole series as quickly as this.

  4. caroline mcilwaine says:

    I agree about Archie Abernethy and disagree about Queen’s Play being the weakest of the series, because we meet so many characters who will become key players in the subsequent book, and because the layers of Lymond are further reinforced: the spy, the poet, the soldier, the cynic, the wit. For me, there has always been a sense of the difference in tone and feel between DD’s first book in this series (in which she was finding her voice and style?) and the later books. In Game of Kings, one mystery is solved, we are shown Francis in gentler moments and led to believe, phew, the bizzarre behaviour at the beginnging of the novel was to draw out (lull?) his enemies and was not the real man. We also have, or think we have, a sort of reconciliation between Francis and Sybilla. Most of the following books, are full of enigmatic episodes with only some relief from the puzzling, and they mostly leave us hanging at the end (one made me weep). I have been re-reading the Lymond series for 20 years and before I owned my (treasured) paperback copies I had to wait for my country-town library to get each book in for me – it was terrible to have to wait and astonishing to hear a librarian say “Dorothy Dunnett is not a popular author and so we don’t stock all of her books in the one place”. DD is a genius; in the words of a character speaking about another character (whom we all love) _ I have not met her like anywhere. I am so envious of people reading her works for the first time. And say, read on – reading joy awaits you!

    • Helen says:

      Hi Caroline. I’ll have to finish reading all six books before I can comment on whether I think Queens’ Play is the weakest – that’s just the impression I’ve got from what other people have said. I have found with other series that there is often a noticeable difference in style between an author’s earliest novels and the later ones. And I’m glad to hear you’re still enjoying these books after so many re-reads – I can already tell that I’m going to want to re-read them too.

  5. Aarti says:

    Oh, fun! I must have missed your post on the first book. I read this series and the House of Niccolo before blogging, and read them all in a rush, too, so I can understand your emotions at this time of getting through them all 🙂 I generally prefer Nicholas to Lymond, though I love them both. Overall, I don’t think Dunnett was the greatest in giving great roles to her female characters, though she was amazingly complex with her men. I really hate Oonagh, for example!

    • Helen says:

      I do want to read the Niccolo books too eventually, but I’ve been worried that Nicholas won’t match up to Lymond so I’m glad to hear you love them both. And I do like some of the female characters (Kate Somerville and Christian Stewart, for example) but I think I agree with you about Oonagh!

  6. Bski says:

    Queens Play was the first book I read and found Game of Kings less well written since it was obviously DD getting her feet wet – but with such promise! My fav is Pawn in F because it’s such a complete, well-rounded episode – it would make a fabulous movie by itself – but, of course, Checkmate is the penultimate DD, IMHO. How to forget the Lyon adventure and the all the dramatic revelations – but the best part for me is the disastrous dinner at the Hotel de Ville – I laughed for days……. what fun to be discovering this delicious author and her wonderful protagonists! Read on………………………

  7. Sarah says:

    OH, I so envy you – only on the 2nd of the series with the rest to look forward to, in addition to all of The House of Niccolo! I just started the Lymond series again – this time on my Kindle since my well-read (I’ve lost count of how many times) paper versions are currently packed away. Once again I was amazed at how engrossed I was in the story and how many little details I picked up for the very first time. DD is an absolute genius, as stated by others, and you are in for SUCH a treat!

    • Helen says:

      I love re-reading books and I’m sure this is a series I’ll want to read over and over again – but at the same time I do feel sad that I’ll never be able to recapture the experience of reading them for the first time!

  8. Janet Mabson says:

    I agree with all the readers comments about how fantastic the books are although I loved Queen’s Play as well. I am now 1/2 way through Checkmate for the fourth time. It doesn’t matter how many times I reread the books I find things I haven’t noticed before. I am such a DD fan I am gradually putting her novels on my kindle as well s having the paperbacks! On to Niccolo next. Yippee!

    • Helen says:

      Hi Janet, I did love Queens’ Play, just not quite as much as The Game of Kings (or The Disorderly Knights, now that I’ve finished that one too). I’m glad to hear you’re still picking up on new details even after multiple rereads!

  9. Sudha says:

    Lucky you! How I wish I was reading the series for the very first time..or, at the worst instance, suffered a memory loss!!
    Oddly enough, I’ve just been re-reading the whole series in the last few months for the nth time and am almost completing Checkmate…and I wish the book would go on for ever.
    I agree with Janet the you tend to find newer meaning every time you read these books. My absolute favorites are The Disorderly Knights and Checkmate.
    I think Queen’s Play is the most difficult of the series to read due to its rather obscure style. A lot is left to be read between the lines and, as a result, there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip, so to speak.
    Like the others, I envy your first-time reader’s experience. Have a wonderful and rich journey.

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