King Hereafter (reread)

When I think of the great historical fiction novelists, the first name to come to my mind is Dorothy Dunnett. Jenny first introduced me to Dunnett more than 10 years ago, when she urged me to read the Lymond Chronicles, Dunnett’s marvelous 6-volume series about the fictional 16-century Scottish nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond. Within 5 years of that first introduction, I had devoured the Lymond books and the even more compelling 8-novel prequel series, the House of Niccolò. But the novel that stands above them all is her one standalone historical novel, King Hereafter, which I just finished reading for the second time.

King Hereafter is the story of Macbeth, king of Alba. That’s right, Macbeth of the three witches, Birnam Wood, and “Is this a dagger I see before me?” Except that Dunnett’s version of this man has very little in common with Shakespeare’s ambitious murderer.

Dunnett’s version of  this 11th-century king is actually the same man as Thorfinn, the Earl of Orkney. I know next to nothing about the history of this period, but I understand that she arrived at this conclusion after doing extensive research into the period. I can’t speak to the likelihood of her being correct, but I can tell you that her version of the man is an exciting figure whose story took my breath away when I first delved into it years ago.

Even better is Dunnett’s version of Lady Macbeth, Groa, a Norwegian beauty previously wed to one of Macbeth’s political rivals, Gillacomghain of Moray. Thorfinn initially takes Groa as a war prize after he defeats Gillacomghain, but she soon becomes a full partner of his mind and his heart. The scenes between the two of them are the heart and soul of the novel. The intimate scenes are some of the best that I’ve read (I’m a full believer in the less is more school of bedroom writing, and Dunnett manages the balance perfectly. It’s downright steamy in its way, mostly because it’s about intimacy, not about the meeting of compatible parts.)

Although I love this relationship, and it’s the thing that stands out most clearly from my first reading of the book, I don’t want to give the idea that this is a historical romance. Far from it. Political machinations, battle plans, and religious transformations also get ample page time. When the novel begins, Thorfinn isn’t expected to do anything more than one-third of the islands of Orkney, but events transpire to raise him far above all expectations. As his power grows, so must the nature of his rule. Nowhere does this become more apparent as in his dealings with his nephew Rognvald, a rival for the rule of Orkney. Their bond at times seems almost as strong as that between Thorfinn and Groa, but Rognvald’s ambition and jealousy drive him to make some dangerous and disloyal choices that test Thorfinn’s resolve to be a proper king over all his people while remaining an honorable man. (Thorfinn’s standards of honor are extraordinarily high—but altogether different from modern notions of right and wrong.)

Besides being a personal story of close relationships, this is also a tale of nations. Dunnett paints on a massive canvas that takes in not only Britain and Ireland, but also Denmark, Norway, Normandy, Rome, and more. We see how the power relationships are interconnected and how one marriage or one alliance can ripple down to affect every other nation in the region. Macbeth is in a particularly difficult position because he must rule several disparate nations—Orkney, Caithness, and Alba. He commits himself to looking out for the interests of the people of all these nations without ever requiring them to sacrifice themselves for others under his rule. His ambition is to use his power to serve his people, and most of them seem to love him for it. This is most decidedly not Shakespeare’s version of the man. (Although Shakespeare fans will enjoy a few sly winks toward the Scottish play, not least of which is the title of the novel itself.)

As much as I love this book, I must warn potential readers that it can be hard going. In fact, on this second read I found myself wondering several times in the early chapters why I loved it so much on the first read. Aside from a rip-roaring footrace along the oars of a longboat, I didn’t find much to excite me in the first 200 pages, and at times I felt utterly lost. Dunnett just throws readers into this entirely new and alien world of 11th-century Scotland without much in the way of help. There are some maps and some complex family trees, but most of these make little sense before you’ve read a good chunk of the book. Most of Dunnett’s books do include a character list, which is a tremendous help, but there isn’t one in the edition of King Hereafter that I read. I have learned with Dunnett that sometimes the best thing to do is to figure out who the central figures are and just worry about them. I’ve also learned to accept that I will not understand every detail on a first (or even a second) read of a Dunnett novel.

So with this in mind, I read on, and at about page 200, it clicked. I remembered what I loved so much, and I started to see patterns that I hadn’t noticed on the first read, when the close relationships were my main interest. Not every section is equally interesting, and there are plenty of things I still don’t quite get, but I think that’s a testimony to the richness of Dunnett’s narrative, rather than to any muddiness in the storytelling. Even having read it before, I found myself having to put the book down several times, not because I was frustrated or confused but because I was overcome with emotion at the turns that Thorfinn’s life took.

I can understand that Dunnett’s dense style may not be for everyone, but if you’re at all interested in historical fiction, do yourself a favor and at least give her a try. If you find that she is for you, your only regret will be that you haven’t discovered her sooner.

Other Bloggers’ Views: The Literary Omnivore

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19 Responses to King Hereafter (reread)

  1. litlove says:

    I have been meaning to read Dorothy Dunnett for the longest time. I think part of the problem is that I once picked up a book of hers cheap, and it’s in the middle of the House of Niccolo series. I go to read it, then hesitate, feeling certain I ought to start at the beginning of something…. Well, I do want to read her, so will have to resolve the dilemma. This sounds like a good book for someone who likes her already – I think I need a more ebullient opening 200 pages for my first attempt. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I do think her series books are best read in order, so your hesitation to start with what you have is well-grounded. Although I like the Niccolo series best of the two series, I think the Lymond books might be more compelling for a first-time Dunnett reader. The period is more familiar, and the opening is more rip-roaringly exciting.

  2. Misha says:

    I am a historical fiction fanatic and always on the look out for great books! Thanks a lot for the review! King Hereafter maybe difficult to get into , as you said, but I definitely want to give it a try.

  3. (I’m a full believer in the less is more school of bedroom writing, and Dunnett manages the balance perfectly. It’s downright steamy in its way, mostly because it’s about intimacy, not about the meeting of compatible parts.)

    Amen! Their relationship is one of my favorite parts about the novel, but I also like that it’s both personal and political in scale—I was quite fond of Sulien.

    And I agree that it can be intimidating; the density really threw me for a loop.

    • Teresa says:

      Thorfinn and Groa are actually among my favorite literary couples because their relationship is so beautifully written. Sulien didn’t stand out to me as much as Rognvald and Thorkel, but I did notice him more this time around (and I’m sure others will stand out on a third read).

  4. Deb says:

    You said–

    As much as I love this book, I must warn potential readers that it can be hard going. In fact, on this second read I found myself wondering several times in the early chapters why I loved it so much on the first read.

    –and I couldn’t agree more. I enjoy history and I have read (although, admittedly, not extensively) about this era, but I found it very difficult to get into this book. In fact, I must admit, I cheated a little and did a “skim-and-scan” through the first 150 pages or so. I did enjoy the relationship between Thorfinn & Groa and also seeing Macbeth through fresh eyes, but I have to say that this is not a book that I would hurry up to reread. I could almost recommend that, unless you’re a Dunnett (or reading) purist, you could jump in at page 150 and not have lost very much.

    /Ducks!

    • Teresa says:

      Your suggestion may be radical, but if a skim-and-scan gets someone to the point where the story takes off, that’s not a bad thing. There are some good moments in those first pages, but there are just as many head-scratching moments. But, oh, when the story takes off, it’s great.

  5. Jenny says:

    You and I totally agree (there’s a shocker) that Lymond is great, but Niccolo is even more compelling, and King Hereafter is best and most satisfying of all. I do think, though, that the advice that Dunnett takes AT LEAST 50 pages to get into, and more for KH, generally holds true. But what a reward! I didn’t have this on my radar to re-read, but now you’re tempting me…

  6. Aarti says:

    Oh, I’m so glad you reviewed this here! I went on a total Lymond craze soon after graduating college (though I must say I don’t think I understood the majority of what was happening there…), and then maybe a year or two later, I did the same for the Niccolo series (I prefer Niccolo to Lymond), but I’ve just never been able to bring myself to read King Hereafter, which everyone says is the GREATEST. I am not sure why. I think the small font intimidates me, in a very large book.

    That said, I am glad that Groa is such a strong character. While I liked Phillippa and Gelis, I thought they kind of became wishy-washy and didn’t make half the impression the men in the story did, which made me think perhaps Dunnett doesn’t write females well. Glad to know I’m wrong.

    • Teresa says:

      I was wondering if you’d read Dunnett, Aarti! And I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one who was sometimes bewildered by Lymond, even as I fell in love with the series. Don’t be intimidated by KH. If you got through Lymond and Niccolo, you’ll get through this. It takes a little longer to warm up than her other books, but the good moments are among her best.

      Groa is by far my favorite of Dunnett’s women, although Thorfinn definitely makes a stronger impression. I do think, though, that Dunnett does a nice job depicting how a woman with Groa’s particular kind of strength might become a pivotal person in a time when men have all the formal power.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I could have sworn I had a Dunnett book on my shelves but I just checked and I do not. I have been wanting to read the Lymond series forever! Maybe 2011 will be the year that I start.

  8. Dargie says:

    Dorothy is a constant inspiration to me. I’m always happy to see people recommend her work.

  9. Alex says:

    I’m also a great Dunnett fan. Lymond is among my favorite books ever and I’m slowly going through Niccolo. King Hereafter is already in the TBR.

    I’m also hesitant about recommending her. I’ve decided to take a chance and put The Game of Kings in my 5-list recommendation to Joanna over at “It’s all about me (time)”, but I know she’s having difficulties with it :S and now I feel a bit guilty… It’s not a book to read only 10m at a time in the metro.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve been enjoying your Niccolo posts. I devoured that series. Loved, loved, loved it. Want to read it again. After I read Lymond again.

      I tend to only recommend Dunnett to people who I know are really into historical fiction or densely written books. Or I couch my recommendations in some caveats–takes a while to get into, make sure you’re feeling focused, etc.

  10. Pingback: Turning over a new leaf

  11. specs2789 says:

    Is this string still live? I’ve just re-read King Hereafter (the third time, I think) and I agree that it is Dunnett at her finest. I still fiddle away at the historical underpinnings, though, and noticed this time that Thorfinn appears in one family tree, Macbeth in the other, and their death dates are one year apart. I have read somewhere or other that the notion that Thorfinn and Macbeth are one and the same is explored elsewhere — anyone know where?
    Thanks
    Merril

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