Thursday, August 3, 2017

REVIEW | Queens Play (Lymond #2) by Dorothy Dunnett

Queens' Play by Dorothy Dunnett
Publication Year: 1964
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: The Lymond Chronicles, Book 2
Awards: None listed but I'm shocked it hasn't gotten some kind of award.
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrator: Andrew Napier

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 Queen's Play will not be spoiler-free so proceed at your own risk!

WHY?:  I'm re-reading Lymond!!

SYNOPSIS:  Queens' Play picks up roughly two years (a little less perhaps) after the events of book one, The Game of Kings.  The young Mary Queen of Scots has been living at the French Court and her mother the regent Queen of Scotland and sister to the King of France, Mary of Guise, is preparing to visit her.  Rumors are floating around that her daughter may be in danger and Mary de Guise wishes to recruit Lymond to go undercover, keep an eye on young Mary and root out any plots against her.  Lymond agrees with equal degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance - it sounds like a good time but he's gonna do it his way and avoid becoming a vassal of the Queen Regent.  What ensues is a harrowing and delightful romp through the twisted political highways and byways of Renaissance France.


With The Game of Kings, I came into the re-read remembering almost nothing about it except that it was confusing.  Queen's Play is really the first book in the series that left some specific impressions in my brain mostly because it is the first to feature Dunnett's famous set pieces.  Scenes of such excitement and unique spectacle that it's hard to credit how believable they are on the page:  assassination attempts by first, elephants, than cheetah and a treacherous and crazy night time race over the rooftops of a French City.  Seriously, they make total sense while you're reading!

Zooming out to the big picture, the political situation is no less mind boggling.  What's going on in the Europe in which we find ourselves immersed in 1549 (or thereabouts)?  Edward, sickly young son of Henry the VIII sits on the English throne.  The war between England and Scotland, that played a large role in book 1, is at a halt for the moment so Scotland is free of the English though still very wary.  They are less wary of the French mostly because the Queen Dowager of Scotland, Mary of Guise, is the French King's sister.  Her daughter - the famous Mary Queen of Scots is just 8 years old and has been living at the French Court for two years and is betrothed to the heir to the French throne.  It's interesting to see Mary Queen of Scots as a precocious and rather charming child:). 

Lymond has been called to France for the sole purpose of keeping Mary the younger safe because her mother fears she is in danger and indeed there are many assassination attempts throughout the book.  Someone in the French Court wants more power and it is Lymond's job to ferret them out.  

Ireland is also in the mix. Like Scotland, they want to get out from under the English but they do not have the central ruler like Scotland nor the close tie to France.  One of the stronger chieftains, Cormac O'Connor is in France trying to convince the French to lend their aid in pushing the English out of Ireland, however O'Connor's main goal is to set himself up as Ireland's monarch. The English also show up in France because in their weakened state they seek to forge a peaceful alliance with their enemy France by securing Mary Queen of Scots' hand in marriage for King Edward or barring her one of the King of France's daughters, Elizabeth.  Phew!  Lots going on and that does not even touch on the jockeying for power and position within the French court.  

The people of France are not all enamored of their monarchy and nobles which are at the height of extravagance and profligacy. The king keeps the whole court on the move, not staying in one place for too long and holding lavish dinners and parties for the mostly licentious and drunken nobles.  

Into this court-gone-wild steps the Irish Prince of Barrow Phelim O'LiamRoe and his ollave Thady Boy Ballagh.  What's an ollave you say?  Good question!  After looking it up, the best way I can describe it is like a personal bard and scholar.  O'LiamRoe is ostensibly there to expand his horizons and get a feel for the French in a way that might benefit his home country but his real reason for being there is on a lark to provide cover for Lymond whose alter ego is, of course, Thady Boy Ballagh.  I say of course but actually, Dunnett does a good job hiding Lymond's cover personae.  We know he's there in the Irish nobleman's party but are unsure who he is until a little ways in. Or at least I was unaware the first time I read it:). 

Some of the characters from book one make a reappearance.  Tom Erskine, the lovesick admirer of Christian Stewart is now a high level dignitary for the Queen Regent and married to Margaret, lady in waiting to the Scottish court.  I love the little touch that Lymond is obviously a little put out that Tom has moved on from the deceased Christian and married Margaret and so he is disinclined to like her - Lymond is sentimentally loyal.  However, Margaret proves to be a woman of good sense (Tom has a type:) and she and Tom are allies to Lymond/Thady Boy.  

There are also a lot of new characters, some of which will remain important throughout the series like Archie Abernethy (posing as an Indian Elephant trainer) and Oonagh O'Dwyer (the first woman we "witness" Lymond get down and dirty with).  As with book one, Lymond attracts the enmity and love (all at the same time) of a young man, in this case Robin Stewart. Phelim O'LiamRoe also ends up having complicated feelings about Lymond though he never obsessively loves him like Robin. "He cursed Francis Crawford with hate and yearning in his voice."  That quote pretty much encapsulates how most people feel about Lymond. The men that get attached to him are generally strong and talented themselves but have some weakness of spirit that Lymond tries to remedy but his efforts often go awry. I really liked O'Liamroe and was kind of bummed he a) didn't get Oonagh in the end and b) doesn't show up or even get mentioned (I don't think) in later books.

In comparison to the first one, this book's plot is as complicated, if not more, but it has a better narrative flow and is a little less episodic.  It also goes further in demonstrating how talented Lymond is at being duplicitous.  He spends much of the book drunk and rowdy but illustrates again and again that he always has his eye on the mission and is never not focused except for perhaps when he gives in to temptation with Oonagh.  I have to say I was surprised by their union and am even more puzzled by readers who describe her as Lymond's first real love - they don't really interact all that much and the banter and intimacy was greater with Christian and eventually Philippa.  Anyhoo, Lymond is a machine who even carries on as normal after he is poisoned so that he doesn't blow his cover. Bad Ass.  

This book is definitely where the hook is set deep.  The political intrigue, the glittering descriptions of the French Court, the astounding set pieces, capped with a daring, nail-biting finale, the fact that Lymond survives despite being poisoned, nearly falling from the top of a cathedral tower, nearly being squeezed to death by a professional wrestler and skewered by a French nobleman in a duel to the death; all of it firmly establishes that this series is fathoms deep and will provide one rollicking ride.  

 The narrator changed from book one to book two and I do like Andrew Napier's voice better.  He handles all the accents  - Scottish, English, French, Irish - really well.  I have two complaints however, 1)  he reads Lymond very flat and without much expression which wasn't terrible but there is so much missed potential for bring the character to life and 2) he pronounces Lymond (Lie-mond) as Limmond. Super annoying.  And he does it for two books before it gets corrected.

FINAL VERDICT: An improvement over the excellent book one and an example of how all novels about 16th century France should be written; swash-buckling and full of political intrigue!  5 out of 5 Stars.

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