Thursday, July 20, 2017

REVIEW | The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
Publication Year: 1961
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: The Lymond Chronicles, Book 1
Awards: None listed but I'm shocked it hasn't gotten some kind of award.
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrator: Samuel Gillies

Hi! If you would like to read a (mostly) spoiler-free review of The Lymond Chronicles as a whole, you can do so in this post.  The review below of The Game of Kings will not be spoiler-free so proceed at your own risk!

WHY?:  I'm re-reading Lymond!!

SYNOPSIS:  The year is 1547 and tensions between Scotland and England are high.  In the middle of the chaos and skirmishes across the borders, Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter appears back in Scotland after a 5 year absence.  Because his loyalty is in question, Lymond skulks around the countryside as an outlaw with a band of rough characters and no one is sure what they are up to. One thing is clear however - they have an agenda l?ut is it for good or il? 


The first time I read this book, I was young (college) and I remember being completely mystified and lost throughout most of the book.  Despite this, I still somehow realized that I had just read something special and I continued on with the series. Boy, was I rewarded for doing so.  Ever since, this series has been my gold standard for Historical Fiction.

I have recommended the series countless times since then and I always caveat my recommendation with, "The Game of Kings is a rough go but just have patience and bully through it.  The series really starts to take off in book two."  After a re-read, 20 years later, I think I might not insert that caveat anymore or I would at least soften it because while this book isn't my favorite in the series, I really enjoyed it this time around!

While this first book is of a slightly different quality and format to later books in the series, it is absolutely astounding - ASTOUNDING - that this was Dunnett's debut novel.  The story goes that she was bemoaning to her husband (or somebody) that she just couldn't find any historical fiction that satisfied her and her husband (or whoever) responded that she should write it herself, then.  And she did. 😵

One of the brilliant, and sometimes frustrating, things she does, which must have been SO HARD to write, is keep her hero, Lymond, an unknown entity for most of the book.  The reader is unsure whether Lymond is a hero or a villain. I mean, sure the series is named after him but practically the first thing he does in the book is set fire to his childhood home (castle) while his mother is in it.  WTH Lymond?  That's cold.  

And he continues to do roguish and questionable things and everybody, except his merry band of men, hates or at least is wary of him.  Lymond became a prisoner of war to England when he was 16 but there seems to be some question about whether he betrayed his home country, Scotland, a rumor that was circulated by the English so that he was exiled from home.  The English toss him over to the continent, to France, where he ends up being kidnapped and becoming a galley slave for two of his 5 year hiatus from Scotland.  Part of the distrust towards him is just because he is an unknown entity and is hanging around with a bunch of rough folk. 
“Five years ago your brother Lymond was found to have been selling his own country for years: he’s been kicked from land to land committing every crime on the calendar and now he’s back here, God forgive him, with filthier habits and a nastier mind than he set out with.”
Lymond is also at odds with his family, or at least his brother who thinks Lymond was responsible for their sister Eloise's death.  What slowly, slowly becomes clear is that Lymond is trying to track down evidence to clear his name of treason against Scotland but he is going about it, in the most Lymond of ways - deviously, secretively, and with all sorts of verse, wit and oblique references thrown in.   The result is a twisty narrative which slowly and delightfully reveals its secrets.
“I wish to God,” said Gideon with mild exasperation, “that you’d talk—just once—in prose like other people.” 
“I despised men who accepted their fate. I shaped mine twenty times and had it broken twenty times in my hands.” 
ONe concrete thing we do find out about Lymond, is that he was a bookish and musical child who lived in the shadow of his older brother, the heir to the Culter title. Their father much preferred his heir to his spare and was kind of a bully.  His mother was much more sympathetic and adored her golden-haired, blue-eyed second son.  These details do actually become very important later in the series as well as elucidating, ever so slightly, Lymond as a character.

The current most popular fan-casting for Lymond is a blond Tom Hiddleston and I'm pretty on board with this:

One thing I found confusing during my first read, along with the enigma of Lymond, was the prodigious cast of characters which I could not for the life of me keep straight.  Thankfully this time around I had (mostly) no problem. The important players are:

  • Richard Crawford: Lymond's mostly stolid older brother and lord of Culter.  He is holding a massive grudge against his younger brother, is newly married and making a really bad job of it.
  • Mariotta Crawford: Richard's new wife who has a head on her shoulders and wants to be a partner for her husband - too bad he treats her like a mostly useless appendage. She becomes somewhat enamored of Lymond which increases Richard's hatred toward him.
  • Sybilla:  Placid and brilliant mother of Richard and Francis, she is the only member of the Crawford household who is unperturbed by her younger son's exploits and throughout the series she is one of the few people that truly gets Lymond.  She is a force to be reckoned with but is in no way strident or unladylike.
  • Wat Scott of Buccleuch:  A bluff, old-fashioned Scottish Laird who's been fighting the English or other lairds his whole life.  He is particularly put out with Lymond because...
  • Will Scott: Is Wat's heir and he's run off and joined Lymond's band of merry men.  Will is a good bit more "modern" than his father and he admires Lymond's freedom and pluck.  He becomes Lymond's unofficial second-in-command but eventually becomes disillusioned with Lymond, betrays him then becomes re-illusioned with him:).  This pattern between Lymond and a younger(they are not always younger in years but definitely in experience/wisdom) protege, will mostly repeat in the next two books with different men.  
  • Christian Stewart:  A red-headed, blind lady-in-waiting to the Queen Regent of Scotland (Mary of Guise), who does quite a bit of nurse-maiding for the young Mary, Queen of Scots.  She is one of Lymond's early, secret supporters because she sees through his roguish actions and suspects that he has a noble cause.  Christian is one of the first important women in Lymond's life and he is quite bereft when she dies but I think his feelings towards her were primarily friendly.  She is an example though of how women seem to get Lymond better than men and Lymond seems to relish their company and not just as romantic partners.
  • Tom Erskine:  A Scottish nobleman, on the rise in the Scottish Court, who is smitten with Christian Stewart.  Tom is a character I had mostly not noticed my first go round but this time I really liked him. 
  • Mary Queen of Scots:  5 year old future Queen of Scotland.  Lymond entertains her with riddles.
  • Mary of Guise:  The French mother of the future Queen of Scotland who is serving as regent until her daughter comes of age.
  • Turkey Mat:  This is the only one I remember from Lymonds Merry Band, but I am sorry he doesn't make any more significant appearances in later books.  He's the solid, loyal lieutenant who trusts that his commander, Lymond, knows what he's doing though he doesn't really understand totally what's going on.
  • Gideon Somerville: Owner of an estate, Flaw Valleys, on the English side of the Scottish border.  He has fought for the English against the Scots many times but he mostly loves music and his family and when Lymond invades their home, he surprisingly ends up becoming the young Scot's ally. Gideon is very sensible, honest and honorable.
  • Kate Somerville:  Gideon's much younger wife, who shares her husband's love for music and who also becomes a staunch friend and ally to Lymond after a rocky start.  She is incredibly witty and  a practical, unflappable and formidable woman.  This is the another woman who Lymond really connects with and who gets him more than most.
  • Philippa Somerville:  Gideon and Kate's 10 year old daughter who is badly frightened by Lymond on their first meeting and thus resolves to hate him for all time which lasts until the last 1/4 of book 3.  Philippa plays a very important role in future books.
  • Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox: Niece to Henry the VIII and sister to the former King of Scotland, Margaret Douglas is an extremely important English Court Lady.  She seduced a 16 year old Lymond while he was trapped in England and when Lymond eventually spurned her, her infatuation turned to hate and she is a thorn in Lymond's side throughout the series. 
Basically, Lymond is pretty much distrusted by Scotland, most of his Family and England and he has one of the most powerful families in both countries (the Douglases) actively trying to prevent him from clearing his name.  And Lymond?  Is pretty much making jokes the whole time and seeming like he could care less about any of it. This book more than the others is almost structured as a series of vignettes, hopping from event to event as Lymond investigates and the political wrangling between Scotland and England wages.  I think it worked really well but I do think the other books are stronger because they are increasingly more focused on a continuous narrative and less episodic.

Dunnett moves the perspective around from character to character, frequently zooming out to a more omniscient view but we never get an entirely clear picture of Lymond and yet still...still by the end of the book I was 100% in his court.  Dunnett builds the sympathy ever so slowly, through exposing the reader to Lymond's humor and wit and providing increasingly more frequent glimpses into his character - his real regret at Philippa hating him, his tete-a-tetes with Christian Stewart and his real sorrow at her death, the good opinions of the sensible and likeable Gideon and Kate Somerville.  I love how this knowledge and sympathy with him builds throughout the book and how deftly and subtly it is done. 

I think one of the things I adore most about the series is how funny it is and I think I appreciated it more this time around because my reading comprehension was higher.  The first time around I was flummoxed by all the 16th century Scottish Slang and Lymond's very literate speech and I can't say I understood every phrase but the prose really opened up for me this time and made the reading experience so much richer and more fun. Dunnett's writing is a marvel.
“Repressively, Lymond himself answered. “I dislike being discussed as if I were a disease. Nobody ‘got’ me,” he said.” 
“Kate slid to her knees, pulling the child’s head to her breast, her mouth in its hair. “Pippa. Pippa, we’re awful fools. What Father means is that truly nothing we have ever done can harm us, and Mr. Crawford has mixed us up with someone else. But you know what unstable-looking parents you have. He doesn’t believe us, but he says he’ll believe you. It’s not very flattering,” said Kate, looking at her daughter with bright eyes, “but you seem to be the one in the family with an honest sort of face, and your father and I must just be thankful for it. Go over to him, darling. I’ll be behind you. And just speak,” she said with an edge like a razor. “Just speak as you would to the dog.” 
“Versatility is one of the few human traits which are universally intolerable. You may be good at Greek and good at painting and be popular. You may be good at Greek and good at sport, and be wildly popular. But try all three and you're a mountebank. Nothing arouses suspicion quicker than genuine, all-round proficiency.” 
The other difference this time around was that I listened to the book, read by Samuel Gillies.  His voice sounds quite old, which wasn't quite right for a story about a young man, and his elocution was very Shakespearean and proper.  It wasn't quite the right fit for the story but it wasn't awful.  His style definitely brought home to me how Shakespearean Dunnett's writing is at times - it's part of what makes it somewhat challenging but also so delightful.

FINAL VERDICTGAH!  This series is so amazing and this is a truly enjoyable and prodigious start.  It establishes Lymond's roots from which all the following 5 books flourish.  I give this one 4 out of 5 stars while SPOILER ALERT, the rest are getting 5 stars but it's more symbolic so I can claim to not be a total pushover.  It is the weakest book in the series but it is still amazing. 💓💓💓💓💓💓💓

OTHER OPINIONS ARE AVAILABLE:   Geri Gibbons |  She Reads Novels | A Striped Armchair

No comments:

Post a Comment