My love for the series started quite accidentally. I was browsing in an old bookshop when my gaze fell upon The Game of Kings, the first book in the series, and found myself thinking that the title sounded familiar. Upon reading the blurb I realised it wasn’t what I expected at all—it was about a minor nobleman turned outlaw in 1547 Edinburgh who was trying to trace three men. I considered it for a while. On one hand, if the title stuck to mind it probably was because someone had recommended it. On the other hand, I didn’t even read much historical fiction (my primary genre of choice had always been science fiction and fantasy), and knew nothing at all about 16th century Scotland.
It was on sale. The cover had a castle and horses. Maybe it’ll have interesting sword fights, I thought, so I picked the book up, paid for it, and took it home with me.
Thus began my love affair with the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
Oh, we got off to a rough start. My lack of background in anything even remotely similar to 16th century European politics made it feel like I had taken a plunge into the deep end, left to sink or swim on my own. I’d read a few pages and go, “What?” and put the book back down, completely baffled. When Lymond opened his mouth to utter his first line, I just blinked at him in bewilderment, already lost despite being only on page 2. I kept being confounded by the sheer number of words I didn’t know. There were quotes in French, and people speaking in Scottish accents, and historical figures I’d never heard of, and way too many references I didn’t get.
I’d close the book and go to bed.
This continued for the rest of the month, when suddenly, one night, I was simply ploughing through the passages, not bothering to look things up. It was at that moment I realised that the book was probably the best thing I had read all year, untranslated poetry and Sir Wat’s sometimes incomprehensible accent be damned. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand so many things; it was a rollicking adventure and Dunnett was hilarious. The dialogue, especially, left me in fits of laughter.
It was a very, very good book. It also had some really interesting sword fights.
I finished it and was desperate for more. I scrounged bookshops for the rest of the series, ordered a few of the books online. I read into the night and went to work vaguely dazed from the lack of sleep, resenting this nine-to-five routine that took me away from the 16th century. I read parts of the book with my heart hammering in my throat, thinking, ‘She wouldn’t!’, but she did. Oh, she did. Think of Dunnett as a predecessor to GRR Martin when it comes to her willingness to kill her characters or make them suffer, only with better prose. (Sorry, ASoIaF fans. It’s true.)
I finished the last book, Checkmate, and reached back for the first one, because it had been that great an adventure. I didn’t reread the whole thing immediately, of course; there were other books to be read, some of them even by Dorothy Dunnett. But I leafed through the pages, seeing new meaning in the passages, discovering new connections between the characters. I made time to look up the historical figures and the quotes and the new words in the dictionary, leaving me rather bemused at my willingness to research a historical period I previously hadn’t cared about.
Then I read the House of Niccolò series (which I also loved, albeit a little less, perhaps, than I had Lymond), and King Hereafter (which I loved a bit more than Niccolò), and still haven’t managed to get my hands on other books by Dunnett.
I was planning to reread the Lymond Chronicles this month but things kept getting in the way. Instead I find myself moving from volume to volume, trying to find my favourite parts (there are many), occasionally making use of The Dorothy Dunnett Companions by Elspeth Morrison. (Someone has done your research for you, see! There’s also Google, and people on Facebook, and Twitter, and Tumblr, and mailing lists, and meet-ups, and probably a multitude of other things. Pick up the series and read it; you’ll be fine.)
Give the books a chance—if you get to page 100 of The Game of Kings and you’re still not hooked, it’s probably not the book for you. But if you like being challenged, and enjoy lush prose and vivid characters and amazing sword fights, well, why not give it a go?
Still not convinced? Here, have a go at these links (I found the first one particularly illuminating):
- All The Writers You Love Probably Love Dorothy Dunnett by Alaya Dawn Johnson on NPR Books
- Five Things Epic Fantasy Writers Could Learn from Dorothy Dunnett by Marie Brennan on Tor.com
- The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, a spoiler-free review by Trudy Morgan-Cole over at the Compulsive Overreader.
[Written in part in response to the prompt jump, but it sort of got away from me.]