The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

The Game of Kings is the first of the Lymond Chronicles, a series of historical fiction novels by Dorothy Dunnett originally published in the 1960s and 70s. I’m actually quite surprised and disappointed that I had never come across these books before, especially as historical fiction is my favourite genre and for a few years was pretty much all I read. Anyway, I’ve discovered them now, which is the most important thing!

It’s 1547 and Francis Crawford of Lymond, accused of treason five years earlier, has returned to his home country of Scotland. As the leader of a band of outlaws he begins a search for the three men he believes might be able to clear his name. Lymond’s personal quest is played out during an important period in Scotland’s history: the English are hoping to marry the 4 year old Mary, Queen of Scots to 9 year old King Edward VI of England and unite the two countries – but the Scots are equally determined to prevent this from happening.

I really can’t tell you much more about the plot without spoiling the story, but I can promise you that this was one of the most gripping historical novels I’ve read for a long time – I was never bored for a minute. There are sad scenes, funny scenes, exciting scenes and moving scenes, not to mention the most thrilling sword fight I’ve ever read! I finished reading the book last weekend and since then have been trying to think of what I could possibly say about it that would do it justice…there were just so many things I loved: the wonderful plot, filled with twists and turns, surprises and revelations; the strong, memorable characters; the clever dialogue; and the accurate and well-researched historical setting. Most of all, of course, I loved Francis Crawford of Lymond, brilliant, charismatic and witty, but also very flawed and troubled. He is now high on my list of favourite fictional characters!

In fact, all of the characters in the book are incredibly well drawn. There’s so much I could say about Christian, Will, Sybilla, Kate, Richard, Mariotta and the others, but I won’t because it would be so much more fun for you to get to know these characters for yourself. They all felt like fully formed people rather than just words on a page and they lived on in my mind even when I wasn’t reading, which I always think is a sign of a good book. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the amazing sense of time and place Dorothy Dunnett creates. The amount of detail she goes into in building Lymond’s world is so impressive and everything feels completely accurate.

But much as I loved it, this was not the easiest of books to get into. There are a lot of characters to keep track of and some of them are referred to by more than one name or title, so the character list at the front of the book was very helpful! The novel also has a very, very complex plot and you really need to concentrate because the tiniest detail can turn out to be important later on. Lymond has a very good reason for almost everything he does but many of those reasons are not immediately obvious. Things that initially don’t make any sense suddenly take on new meaning a few chapters later and I found I had to keep re-reading previous sections so I could grasp what had happened.

I should also point out that Lymond’s dialogue is filled with quotes and references from history, literature, myth, nature, philosophy, nursery rhymes, songs and riddles (some of which are in French, Spanish, Latin or other languages, which are not translated for us). I soon realised there was no way I was going to understand all of the references, as unfortunately my education is sadly lacking in comparison to Lymond’s! Some of the things he says seem to mean nothing at all unless you recognise the context they are from, which in most cases I didn’t.

I know there are two Dorothy Dunnett Companions and other guides to the series that you can buy, but I think trying to read those along with The Game of Kings would have been too much for me on a first read! I decided just to enjoy the story and when I re-read the book, as I’m sure I will, I can look up the unfamiliar words and phrases then. In the meantime, there was always Google when I was desperate to know what something meant.

So, if you’re looking for a light, easy read The Game of Kings probably isn’t for you, but if you enjoy complex, well-written historical fiction then I hope you’ll give it a try. Although it could be challenging at times it was so rewarding and definitely worth the effort. I’ve already started reading the second in the series, Queen’s Play – I’m nearly 100 pages into it and loving it so far!

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32 thoughts on “The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Lisa says:

    What a wonderful review! I am so glad you enjoyed it – as you say, not the easiest of books to read, but oh so rewarding. Dunnett really set the bar for me for historical fiction – and set it pretty high. And Lymond is simply without parallel. I admit to having become rather obsessed with him, and with the whole world of the Chronicles. And just think, after these six books, you have the eight books of the House of Niccolo 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I think I’m a bit obsessed with him too, Lisa, and I’ve only read the one book so far! And yes, I still have the Niccolo books to look forward to. 🙂

  2. Ann Looker says:

    You are so lucky to be reading this series for the first time! I sometimes wish I could put the clock back and recapture the excitement. I remember I visited the States in 1978 to go to a Star Trek convention and an American fan gave me her copy of “Game of Kings” to read on the flight home to London. She was wittering on about the delectable Francis Crawford and how come I’d never heard of him. A week later I was completely addicted but by then had followed my husband to Germany where he was working. There were no English Language bookshops and I had to bombard a friend who lived in Oxford to get the series to me. I went completely under the radar for the next month while I read the books. (Mocked by my husband and son who kept chanting “Who Dunnet? Dorothy Dunnet!” Fortunately I was immune to idiots!) That was 34 years ago and I have never, from that day to this, been so enthralled by any novel or series of novels.

  3. simhedges says:

    Your review is great – it brings back reading the books for the first time. And you are quite right about not using the Companions (or Nancy Wright’s translation guide) as you read the books for the first time – there’s plenty of time for that stuff later on. If you want to talk more, join the Marzipan list on yahoogroups http://groups.yahoo.com/group/marzipan/ (but watch out – unmarked important spoilers for the series abound), or join the Dorothy Dunnett Society at http://www.dorothydunnett.org It’s great that you are already enjoying Queens’ Play – this series just builds and builds.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for both of those links – I’d be interested in joining but would like to finish the series first as I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers!

      • simhedges says:

        I can quite understand that – I read the Lymond books out of order (Game of Kings, Queens’ Play, Pawn in Frankincense, Checkmate, Ringed Castle and Disorderly Knights), and regret this. I wish I’d delayed until the library got the books in (they were out of print back in 1980, and there were no online secondhand bookshops back then), but I couldn’t bear to wait.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, you’d probably have to be in the right mood at first, though it does get easier to read as you get further into the book. By the time I reached the end I couldn’t believe I had struggled so much at the beginning!

  4. Catherine Mills says:

    I’ve just discovered these books as well, having kept a copy of ‘best of books’ and dismissed this since it was listed as a romance….(or I thought it could wait…) I didn’t realize they meant ROMANCE in a more classical sense. I too, felt rather slow-witted reading it, a lot of the references were foreign but perseverance paid off. Absolutely marvelous! I too, will re-read it all later, and study the references. I love the dialogue, and often have to re-read passages to properly set in my mind what exactly I think has passed between the characters. It all rolls around in the brain for a long time, challenging, delighting and enlightening. Ms. Dunnett must have been an extraordinary lady.

  5. Alex says:

    If you feel this way about Game of Kings, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on others, especially the ones after Queen’s Play. It’s always hard for me to recommend DD because I know how the first two are a challenge. I got addicted in 2010 and now am slooowly going through The House of Niccolo, making them last. Also bought the two companions, which have really been useful.

    My favorite of the series are The Disorderly Knights and Pawn in Frankincense, but I know the majority of fans go with Checkmate.

    • Helen says:

      I’m looking forward to the later books, but at the same time don’t want to rush through the series too quickly. I’m glad to hear you’ve found the companions useful – I’m sure I’ll probably want to buy them at some point.

  6. Renee says:

    I have now read them for a fourth time. It makes a difference when you read them with the companion books next to you! You already know the story, but the brilliance of Lymond becomes that much clearer when you understand all of his references. Having Google helps too- you can do an image search for any of the places he visits, and put yourself fully in the scenes!

  7. Katie says:

    I just finished the series. It was wonderful. Like you unless really interested I didn’t dwell too much on the different languages and references I didn’t know. I do intend to go back through the series (probably more than once) with the companions at some point. I’m going to read HoN then probably buy the companions and go through the books over time. The first two books took me a couple weeks each to get through then I hit PiF and flew through the last books. I’m so glad to have found them!

    • Helen says:

      Hi Katie, I’m glad to hear you’ve enjoyed reading them too. I think it’s probably the right decision not to dwell on the references too much – there’ll be time for that later.

  8. Sylvia says:

    I fell in love with Francis Crawford 30 years ago and still am. always my favourtie books to rererereread…..I’ve visited many places just to be where he was LOL…Malta, Cyprus, Rhodes, Italy…..

  9. Sylvia says:

    Can I just add to Ann Looker…there was a fan fic on one of the Dunnett sites in which a descendant of Francis Crawford and Mr Spock was a doctor in Star Fleet….how cool!

  10. Alex in Leeds says:

    I just wanted to say hi, I found your blog today. Seeing your review of the last book in this series I was intrigued and came back to Book 1… I’ve never tried any of Dorothy Dunnett’s work but this has convinced me to dive in!

    • Helen says:

      Hi Alex, I’m glad I could bring this series to your attention. I would definitely recommend starting with the first book and reading them in order. I’d love to see what you think if you do decide to give them a try!

  11. Sharla Utz says:

    Good review–I just finished the series for the first time (but definitely NOT the last one) four days ago, reading the last three in one mad dash. They still haven’t let go of me, and I can’t read anything else! I just wander around the internet reading Dunnet book reviews, blogs, and discussion groups. Like yours. 🙂 Trying to somehow share the amazing experience that is reading Dunnett.

    • Helen says:

      Hi Sharla, thanks for commenting. I understand how you feel – reading these books for the first time is a wonderful experience and after finishing them it’s difficult to move on and read something else. I’m reading the House of Niccolo now and enjoying them too, but they’re not having quite the same effect on me as the Lymond Chronicles did!

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