Historical Musings #40: Reading Dorothy Dunnett

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. After doing something slightly different in June with an attempt at completing the I-Spy book cover challenge, I’m returning to my guides to individual authors and their work. Previously I have written about Elizabeth Chadwick, Anya Seton and Edward Rutherfurd; this month it’s the turn of one of my absolute favourite authors of historical fiction – Dorothy Dunnett. If you have been following my blog for a while, you will probably have noticed that I never miss an opportunity to mention Dunnett’s novels and how wonderful they are, so you won’t be surprised to hear that she is the author I have been most looking forward to featuring here.

Dorothy Dunnett was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1923 and died in 2001. You can find out more about her life and work at the Dorothy Dunnett Society website.

I read my first Dunnett novel in February 2012 and just over a year later I had read all fifteen of her historical novels – the six books that form her Lymond Chronicles, the eight in her other series, The House of Niccolò, and her standalone novel, King Hereafter. She also wrote a series of contemporary mystery novels, but I am still working through those, and for the purposes of this post I will concentrate on her historical fiction only.

If you’ve never read Dunnett before you will be wondering where you need to begin. My recommendation would be to start in the same place that I started – with The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles. I have seen some people suggest that Niccolò Rising is more accessible and easier to read, and perhaps it is, but I personally didn’t find it quite the stunning, unforgettable read that The Game of Kings was.

The Lymond Chronicles

This series of six novels, published between 1961 and 1975, follow the adventures of Scottish nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond in 16th century Europe and beyond. Here are my reviews of the books:

The Game of Kings
Queens’ Play
The Disorderly Knights
Pawn in Frankincense
The Ringed Castle
Checkmate

I think my comments on finishing the series back in April 2012 say everything that needs to be said:

“For anyone who has yet to read these books, I can promise you that although they’re not the easiest of reads, it’s definitely worth making the effort and getting to know Francis Crawford of Lymond, one of the most complex, charismatic, fascinating characters you’re ever likely to meet in literature. Working through the six books of the Lymond Chronicles has been one has been one of the greatest experiences in my lifetime of reading.”

The House of Niccolò

Dunnett’s second series, published from 1986 to 2000, is longer and, if such a thing is possible, even more complex and intricately plotted. It follows the rise in fortunes of Nicholas de Fleury, whom we first meet as a dyer’s apprentice in 15th century Bruges.

This is what I had to say after finishing the last book in 2013. As you can see, I did love this series too, but not quite as much:

“I’ve really enjoyed working my way through this series, but the House of Niccolò hasn’t had quite the same effect on me as the Lymond Chronicles, mainly because Nicholas himself, to me, is a less appealing character than Lymond – though I know others will disagree…Still, I did love the series as a whole and am looking forward to reading all the books again and looking out for some of the things I know I missed during the first read.”

The eight books, again with links to my reviews, are:

Niccolò Rising
The Spring of the Ram
Race of Scorpions
Scales of Gold
The Unicorn Hunt
To Lie With Lions
Caprice and Rondo
Gemini

Dunnett’s own advice was apparently to read The Lymond Chronicles first then The House of Niccolò, then Lymond again in order to pick up on the links between the two series (and they are linked in some very clever ways, although I won’t say any more about that here). I can almost guarantee you will want to read Dunnett’s books more than once anyway. There are so many layers that it’s impossible to fully understand everything the first time and re-reading will allow you to pick up on some of the things you missed.

The Dorothy Dunnett Companion and The Dorothy Dunnett Companion II

The amount of time and effort you want to put into reading these books depends on how much you’re hoping to get out of them. If, like me, you find that you want to shed more light on the literary allusions, fragments of poetry and appearances by real historical figures, both famous and obscure, help is at hand – the two-volume Dorothy Dunnett Companion provides translations, explanations, maps and sources.

King Hereafter

Dunnett’s only standalone historical novel is based around the idea that Macbeth, the 11th century King of Alba (Scotland), and Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, were one and the same. King Hereafter is the result of a huge amount of research and as with all of Dunnett’s novels the writing is excellent. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!

My review of King Hereafter from 2013.

~

I have attempted to give a good overview of Dunnett’s work here, without going into too much detail. I hope I’ve succeeded! Next month I will be choosing another historical fiction author to feature, but for now I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Dorothy Dunnett…

Have you read any of her novels? If not, would you like to? And if you have, how did you discover them? Which of her books are your favourites? What can you say to encourage new readers to try Dunnett for the first time?

31 thoughts on “Historical Musings #40: Reading Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Margaret says:

    Years ago a friend recommended Dorothy Dunnett’s books, but still haven’t read any, so I’m pleased you’ve written this post. I do have The Game of Kings on Kindle – so all I have to do now is read it!

    • Helen says:

      Your friend was right to recommend them as they really are wonderful books! I’m pleased to hear you have The Game of Kings on your Kindle – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    I discovered Dorothy Dunnett at the age of thirteen – I’d been laid up with flu, and was so desperate for reading material that I’d resorted to back copies of my mother’s ‘Woman’s Journal’. In one of them there was a glowing review of ‘The Game of Kings’, and when I was well enough to go to the library, I borrowed it and was instantly hooked. I didn’t understand the half of it, but I fell in love with Francis Crawford, his family and his story, and they are still my very favourite books, more than fifty years later. I remember the terror I felt as each book in the series was published – would he be killed off in this one? When ‘Pawn in Frankincense’ came out, I stood in the bookshop in Ipswich and read the last page with overwhelming relief – he’d survived! So when I did manage to read the whole book, I was completely unprepared for the traumatic, terrible scene three quarters of the way through, which had me sobbing desperately into my pillow at four o’clock in the morning (in my defence, I was only seventeen).

    No, they’re not easy books, but every time you read them you find something new and different, a twist you hadn’t noticed, a hint that had previously passed you by. And her writing is superb, her characters vivid and complex and mostly very likeable, and her plotting dense and intricate. Another fan commented that they’re an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it, you have it for life. If I’d never read Dunnett, I’d still be an author, but a very different kind of author. And the list of writers who acknowledge her influence is a long and prestigious one.

    Perhaps I’d better leave the last word to my mum, bless her. I tried to get her to read them, but without success. A long while later, when I mentioned one of the Lymond series, she said, ‘Is that the one about the Scotsman who had trouble with his family?’

    Which is a bit like saying that Hamlet’s about revenge, or Othello’s about jealousy.

    • Helen says:

      I sometimes feel envious of those of you who discovered Dunnett at an early age and were able to read each book as it was published, but I suppose there are some advantages to coming to them later. I knew that there were six books so it was unlikely that Lymond would be killed off in books one to five – although there was no such guarantee when I reached Checkmate, of course. And I wasn’t prepared for that scene in Pawn in Frankincense either!

      I love your mum’s one-sentence summary of the Lymond Chronicles!

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    Wonderful! I read a lot of historical fiction as a teenager then left it, however I’ve always been aware that these are something very special and something to recommend people looking for good historical stuff.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, they are something very special indeed! They are certainly the best historical novels I’ve read – and I read a lot of historical novels. 🙂

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    You succeeded! What a perfect overview. It gives just enough to whet the appetite without going into too much detail. I think what appeals to me most is that it takes a bit of work to read the books. Those are the books I love. And the Lymond Chronicles fits into My Big Fat Reading Project without me having to go back too far, since I am currently reading 1964. I had noticed that your reviews of Dunnett’s novels are always laudatory. Now I get why.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad my post has helped you to understand why I love these books so much, Judy. They do require a bit of effort from the reader, but it’s definitely worth it!

  5. Melita Kennedy says:

    I had heard about Dorothy Dunnett on rec.arts.sf-written rec.arts.sf.fandom–out-of-genre books and authors that science fiction and fantasy readers might like. Because I kept hearing about her, and I liked some historical fiction, I started looking for her books. This would have been in the early to mid-90s based on which books of Niccolo I know I ordered new from the UK because they were being released earlier there.

    I found the first 3 or 4 books as remaindered hardcovers and fell headlong into the series.

    I’ve read most of Lymond, but originally had trouble with the first book, so took advice that said to start with book 3. That worked and I finished the series. I skimmed through the first two books and still haven’t reread them, although I’ve reread Niccolo at least twice.

    I’m about to the point where I’ll do another reread–but it’s such a big project now that I have 2 little kids that I haven’t done it.

    • Helen says:

      I know a lot of people struggle at first with The Game of Kings, but I absolutely loved it – and Queens’ Play too. I’m glad you eventually found a way into the series that worked for you, though. I didn’t love the Niccolo books quite as much, but I do want to re-read them as I know I missed a lot on my first read. It’s definitely a big commitment, though, and I haven’t had the time to devote to re-reading all eight books yet.

  6. Bichon Lover says:

    Having discovered Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter nearly thirty years ago in my public library, and afterward having faithfully devoured everything she’s ever written, I can truly say that her books are among the best I have ever read. Dunnett’s historical novels earn such high praise because she brings her characters so vividly to life, in all the artistic detail of a portrait painter — which she also was — who spent years researching the lives of her historical characters. When reading her books I always feel as if I’d stepped back in time into the midst of a grand adventure with the most fascinating people. Dunnett’s details are so accurate and her sense of artistry so deft that I fell in love and have been forever changed by her larger-than-life characters and their extraordinary stories, and so have innumerable readers all over the world. If you have not yet read Dunnett, you have a wonderful, amazing experience ahead of you.

    • Helen says:

      I love Dunnett’s books for all of the reasons you’ve mentioned. They are some of the best I’ve ever read too. Her characters are wonderful – the sort you find yourself thinking about even when you’re not reading.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I love these novels. I couldn’t get into ‘The Game of Kings’ on my first attempt in 1974, but in the 1980s I was hooked. I picked up ‘The Ringed Castle’, and then had to work my way through the series. While I like The Lymond Chronicles, I love The House of Niccolo. I’ve read each of the 14 novels in these two series two or three times. I have a special place in my heart for ‘King Hereafter’ and am hoping to reread it (for the second time) later this year. I love historical fiction, and Dorothy Dunnett’s historical fiction is the best! If you have an opportunity, have a look at ‘The Lymond Poetry’ which was compiled by Dorothy Dunnett and published in 2003.

    The contemporary mysteries are worth reading as they display another facet of Dorothy Dunnett’s writing skill. But my heart belongs to Nicholas, to Thorfinn and to Lymond.

    The Dunnett historical novels are amongst the most challenging novels I’ve ever read, but they are so rewarding on so many different levels.

  8. whatmeread says:

    I love Dorothy Dunnett, and I’ve been disappointed at not being able to get any of my friends to read her because of the difficulty. I started reading her in the 80’s and have read everything she’s published, including a travel book. I used to shop at a great bookstore in Houston called Murder by the Book that specializes in mysteries. They had a small section of historical novels, though, and on it was a card (back before every bookstore put cards on their shelves to recommend books) that said, “These are the best books in the world.” And they were. Unfortunately, at the time they went out of print, and I spent about a year trying to track down all of the books in the Lymond series (pre-Internet).

    • Helen says:

      I remember the difficulty of trying to track down books in the pre-internet days! Luckily that wasn’t a problem for me as I didn’t start reading Dunnett until 2012. I agree with whoever wrote that card in Murder by the Book. 🙂

  9. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve yet to begin her Niccolo series but loved the Lymond Chronicles and have just finished King Hereafter which I loved even more than the Lymond.books. I must get the Dorothy Dunnett Companion.

    • Helen says:

      I think the Companions are worth buying. When I read the Lymond and Niccolo books for the first time I was too caught up in the story to look up all the references, but I knew that I would want to delve into things more deeply when I got around to re-reading.

  10. Olva Stewart Pharo says:

    I found The Game of Kings in 1961 and read the books as Lady Dunnett wrote them. I read House of Niccolo also but the Lymond Chronicles will always be my favorite. I have read them over and over through the years. Always finding something new. It is hard to state the profound effect they have had on my life. I love historical novels and DD made everyone else’s writing stale. I corresponded with Lady Dunnett for 20 years. She was an amazing person who created the romantic hero to end all heroes.

    • Helen says:

      I came to Dunnett’s novels too late to have the pleasure of meeting or corresponding with her, but I can tell from her writing what an amazing person she must have been. The Lymond Chronicles are my favourites too.

  11. cirtnecce says:

    I must get to Dunnett soon! She seems so brilliant and many like you, whose tastes I have firm faith in have advised of her brilliance. I just wish her Lymond series were easily available here!

  12. Sandra says:

    You’ve done a great job of introducing these books to me, Helen. What a wonderful writer you describe. I shall pick the right moment – hopefully not too far into the future – and embark on what will surely be a marvellous journey.

    • Helen says:

      I think you’ll have a wonderful journey ahead of you with Dunnett’s novels. You do need to pick the right moment, though – they are not the easiest of reads, but definitely worth the time and effort.

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