Reading Is Good For You

Book Reviews, Literary News, and Thoughts on Life

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

In 1547 Scotland has been humiliated by an English invasion and is threatened by machinations elsewhere beyond its borders, but is still free. Paradoxically, her freedom may depend on a man who stands accused of treason.

He is Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of crooked felicities and murderous talents, possessed of a scholar’s erudition and a tongue as wicked as a rapier. In The Game of Kings this extrodinary antihero returns to the country that has outlawed him – to redeem his reputation even at the risk of his life.*

*Courtesy of book’s back cover.

I knew I was in trouble with The Game of Kings the moment I saw the two page detailed character list provided by the author at the start of this book. With characters being referred to by their given name, their surname, and their property name, I found myself constantly going back to these pages to try to figure out who these people where and whether they supported the English or the Scottish (or both, if that was convenient). If this wasn’t enough to try my memory sorely, the main character, Lymond, kept getting into skirmishes with various characters throughout Scotland and then refer to them by location later on in the book and I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, having put down the book for a day or two in between readings.

And then there is the character of Lymond himself. Readers are brought into the story medias res, with only the knowledge that Lymond has been accused of treason and is trying to redeem his reputation. As I read, I kept feeling myself to be in the dark as to what crime exactly Lymond has committed and feeling like the biggest idiot known to mankind because I couldn’t figure this out from the clues provided. I mean, I may not be an intellect, but I certainly am intelligent – I should be able to accomplish this small thing! Then it dawned on me that this was exactly what Dunnett desired. We are meant to unravel the mystery that is Lymond bit by bit throughout the story (and the rest of the series as well) along with the supporting characters. Once that light bulb went off, my frustration with the book and author diminished.

Well, almost.

Lymond, bless his smarty pants little soul, would at times start spouting off literary quotations to other characters in French or Spanish or whatnot and I’d have no idea what the heck he was saying. Footnotes would have been helpful in this situation. When I did understand him, though, I found Lymond to be an immensely intriguing character.  With his intelligence, boldness, and sassy wit, I can certainly understand why fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides would find Lymond appealing. I wasn’t quite sure all the time whether he was a scoundral or simply a scapegoat, but I found myself rooting for him none the less.

The prose is simply beautiful as well. As I’ve read historical fiction, I’ve found that many authors either don’t make the effort to write as if their characters are actually from that historical time period, or they try to hard and their dialogue comes off as ridiculous. Not so with Dorothy Dunnett. Her prose seems authentic, like how someone residing in the Scottish Lowlands in the sixteenth century would speak. I also appreciate how she included a good amount of humor (albeit, a dry British humor) in the storyline, which helped make an otherwise challenging read much more enjoyable (see here for an example).

If you are looking for a fun, fluffy read, chances are The Game of Kings is not going to be up your alley. If you , however, are looking to challenge yourself with a non-stop, action packed, mysterious book with one of the best sword fights I have ever witnessed on the printed page, look no further than what Dunnett has provided. Hey, if I can learn to like a book that made me feel like a yayhoo, then so can you. Just learn from my mistake and take notes. Trust me, you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration.

Title/Author: The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
Series: Book One of the Lymond Chronicles
Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st edition (1997) (Originally  from Amereon House; 1960)
Pages: 543
Price: $17.00 (Amazon)

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5 comments on “The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Charlotte
    February 9, 2010

    I want to read Dorothy Dunnett, because Megan Whalen Turner thinks so highly of her books, but I somehow keep putting it off, hoping that I will have a week or so off work or something of the sort so as to be able to concentrate….

  2. Jenn
    February 9, 2010

    Yeah, these are the kinds of books you need to really concentrate on, or else you will be totally and completely lost. I’m just thankful that they include character descriptions (though I’m a bit worried about the third book, because it has a list of characters four pages long). I would highly recommend this book, though, regardless of the trouble with it I had initially.

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  4. Lynne Connolly
    August 30, 2010

    Never let anyone put you off these books. The first one is a bit tricky, for the reasons outlined above, but after that, you have five more glorious adventures with one of the most complex characters in modern fiction.
    Almost anything you can say is a spoiler, and Dunnett is one of the few writers who can keep you guessing up to the last page. The historical detail is astonishing and fascinating without being overwhelming – the emphasis is always on what is happening and why.
    Her narrative technique, of showing Lymond through the eyes of his friends and enemies, rather than through his own eyes, gives the reader a complex and multifaceted character of endless fascination.

  5. Grace Lloyd
    November 11, 2010

    As others have said other places and I unknowingly did my first read of the very wonderful Dorothy Dunnett…Just plow in and accept the fact that you won’t get some if not most. The plot will carry you. Then you can go back and reread and play the game of figuring out what where who and most important why.
    I had difficulty with the first book and the first half of the second but from that point on I read until I couldn’t see, literally. It is and was the best book experience of my 50 yrs reading.

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2010 by in Action/Adventure, Adult Fiction and tagged , , , .
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