EPS Review #203 - The Game of Kings

The Game of Kings (Lymond Chronicles, 1) , by Dorothy Dunnett, Penguin 1961, 510pp.

It was about time I read something really good! Thanks to the Wall Street Journal and Laurie for this one. I finally paid up to be able to read the WSJ online, and came across Book Picks For Historical Fiction, where a reader who loved Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett asked for more in that vein. Since Laurie is a voracious speed-reader of genre fiction, I asked her about Dunnett, and she replied "I would definitely not start with Niccolo series but go to her first book which I believe is Game of Kings. I re-read the series every couple of years, consider it Harry Potter for grown ups."

The protagonist is Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter, as you learn from the three pages of dramatis personae at the beginning. You do not actually need this list of characters, both because Dunnett is a skilful enough writer to make each character memorable, and because oh if only who-is-who were all there is to it! Lymond is handsome and cruel, but also impossibly well educated, and speaks in a thick stream of poetry and allusions, sometimes more like a riddle scroll than dialog. And not since Nabokov have I had to look up so many words: vespiary, aposteme, colletic, subsaltive (subsultory?), escharotic, among others. Then there's the Scottish dialect, the Latin and the medieval French and other languages. Even the plot movements are subtle, and you must sometimes reread passages until you "get" it. I am sure some people would find a romance that is hard to read just tedious, but I liked it a lot.

The plot is good for one thing. Is Lymond a rogue or not? It takes a while to find out for sure. Dunnett plays fair and delivers the goods. There is a nice bit of play-acting to fool the English, an utterly excellent sword-fight, and a very sad death, to name but a few. I can see why brainy women (including my friend Debbie's mum) might find Lymond an excellent hero. I find him a tiny bit annoying, but then so was Errol Flynn. I plan the read the rest of this series.

( It looks like there's a skeleton key to all the references, if you want it.)

Paul wrote: This is on its way to me from Amazon for the beach. I am very excited!

Laurie wrote: SO glad you liked it. You could go on... they're really good. Or go for the non-series, King Hereafter about Macbeth. Niccolo is quite rococo in comparison, perhaps hard to believe. Yes it's tough being as perfect as Francis Crawford... as his brother finds...

Kevin wrote: Well, I was delighted when this series showed up on Kindle. After poking the "we want this on Kindle" button countless times, I think this is the only one that has actually shown up! My brief attempt to "read" this with audiobooks while bike riding was an utter failure.

I'm only half-way through, but am really liking it. I'm a sucker for living vicariously in whatever century, but the 16th is better than most. Lymond is Robin Hood--what's not to like.

I have to agree on the vocab and the dialog is not entirely credible, though it reawakens my old desire to have all my conversations scripted by some brilliant author. Like I mentioned before, it probably helps to know where Hymettus is, as well as some French and Latin, though my Spanish is typically enough to figure it out. I've never been so glad to have a built-in dictionary while I'm reading. The default dictionary has most of the obscure words even in your list, some Scottish ones, the bits and pieces of period clothing, and most of the saints and Greek gods, but it did fail on Hymettus, hagioscopic, and a few others.

I'd be awful tempted to buy the Dunnett Companion you mention, but that, of course, is not available on Kindle. Can't wait until I get back to the first world and can order stuff from the internet that consists of physical atoms that arrive in a box.

I replied: I am glad you are enjoying Lymond. I got partway into the second book and then gave up because it made me feel too stupid! Maybe hypertext really is the way to go.

Kevin wrote back: I finished The Game of Kings. I haven't enjoyed a book so much for quite a while. Despite that I thought it went on a bit too long. I guess I'll move on to the second book, too, though if it made you feel stupid, I don't hold much hope for myself. Especially since it's set in the French court--I'm sure there will be even more abundant and even more obscure French quotes.

By the way, I was equally stymied by the word subsaltive. My google turned up your review as the top hit--LOL! At first I thought it meant something like below the salt of their fingers (quote is: on the sweating, subsaltive hands and on the grinning tarots), but on second thought that seemed stupid. Sometimes the obscure words are just annoying (if nobody knows what a word means it's arguably not a word) but other times perfect (quote from the same scene: light beat down on a swaying corymb of heads). I was also annoyed when she had Lord Grey talking in a lisp when we first hear him speak, but even more annoyed when in all his subsequent dialog there is no lisp.