Jenny: Have you ever finished a book, or a series of books, that completely bowled you over — left you breathless and delighted — only to discover that no one else had ever even heard of it? That was my position in 1999, when I first discovered Dorothy Dunnett’s stunning historical novels. I read my way through her Lymond Chronicles, surfaced just long enough to wipe my tears, and then instantly re-read the entire series. Then I looked around. Who could I talk about this with? No one, that’s who. No one I knew had even heard Dunnett’s name. So of course I forced Teresa to read them.
The Lymond Chronicles are a series of six novels, set in and around 16th century Europe, which follow the life and career of a Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond. The series is a tale of suspense, adventure and romance, filled with action, intense drama, poetry, culture, warfare and high comedy. Meticulously researched, the story starts in Scotland but moves to a wide variety of locations, including France, the Ottoman Empire, Malta, England and Russia. The novels are thick with life, and feature a cast of compelling original characters and historical figures. They are densely, beautifully, and vividly written. From the beginning of an incredible race over the rooftops of Blois, in Queen’s Play:
On the roof, in the red glare of pitch torches, the heat was surprising. Below them, splayed, crooked, jostling, the impacted rooftops of Blois like some dental nightmare sloped down from the hill to where the plateau of the chateau rose blue-black against the green-black of the sky, iced and prickled with lights. On their left, beyond serried chimneys, the river Loire lay like pewter, braided with dark trees. Above, it was cool, sparkling, and silent: a gracious winter sky below which earth’s younglings could rest. With a roar that rattled the windows, the steeplechase began.
Dunnett’s other series, The House of Niccolò, is a series of eight novels set in late 15th century Europe. The protagonist of the series is Nicholas de Fleury (Niccolò, Nicholas van der Poele, or Claes), a talented boy of uncertain birth who rises to the heights of European merchant banking and international political intrigue. The series shares many of the locations in the Lymond Chronicles, but also takes in Bruges, Venice, Florence, Geneva, and the Hanseatic League; Burgundy, Flanders, Poland and Muscovy; Iceland; the Iberian Peninsula and Madeira; the Black Sea cities of Trebizond and Caffa; Persia; the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Rhodes; Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula; and West Africa, Timbuktu and the Sahara. The idea of novels that are less swashbuckling and more about merchant life put me off at first, but in fact they are even more gripping: full of dynastic intrigue, drama, personalities, and the fascination that comes with real relationships. Dunnett’s prose never falters. She is astonishing.
Teresa: I had never heard of Dorothy Dunnett before Jenny recommended her, but she was so insistent that I’d love the books and so obviously eager to talk about them that I gave them a try right away. I spent several months gobbling them down, one right after the other. I remember sitting on the beach with The Disorderly Knights and breathlessly trying to explain the greatest chess game ever written (in Pawn in Frankincense) to a friend.
Dunnett is known for her meticulous attention to detail, to the point that many are intimidated about her work. But the beauty of these books is that you don’t have to understand every detail to be able to revel in the compelling human drama. For me, the central characters are so wonderful and their stories so exciting that I was able to let the details go and focus on the primary thread. The rest is window dressing, there for my appreciation and perhaps more focused attention on a later visit.
I read all of Dunnett’s historical novels within a few years of Jenny’s introducing them to me. (I have yet to read her mysteries, but I hear good things!) My own favorite, which I’ve read twice, is her stand-alone novel, King Hereafter. The history embedded in Dunnett’s story of the historical Macbeth is fascinating, but again, it’s the people that make this book.
But when it comes to Dorothy Dunnett, you don’t have to take our word for it. Lisa May of TBR 313, Aarti of Booklust, Alex of The Sleepless Reader, and Helen of She Reads Novels are also fans. Eva at A Striped Armchair recently tried her first Lymond novel—and loved it. Perhaps it’s time for you to try too?
If you’re interested in discovering the delights of Dunnett for yourself, now might be a very good time. Annabel at Gaskella is considering organizing a readalong. Jenny and I have been craving a reread for quite a while, so we’ll probably be joining at some level. I’ve only read the Lymond books once, so I’m eager to revisit them and pick up more of the wonderful historical detail. Worlds as rich as Dunnett’s deserve multiple visits.