BBAW: Recognizing Dorothy Dunnett

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.

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43 Responses to BBAW: Recognizing Dorothy Dunnett

  1. WESTOWN GIRL says:

    King Hereafter is my all time favourite book though I do like the House of Niccolo and Lymond. So strange though that she still seems top be a well kept secret. Thanks for the post.

    • Jenny says:

      I actually think King Hereafter is my favorite of hers, too, though sometimes I can’t quite make up my mind — there are such wonderful characters in the other series.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Okay, I’m trying one.

  3. mesmered says:

    Wonderful to find these blogs! Dunnett is my all time favourite writer. I have just started re-reading Niccolo and as fresh as my first read, forever ago. This is my third read, I think. I also have the Dorothy Dunnett Companions Vol 1 and Vol 2. An absolute must.

  4. Mesmered – I too have the companions :-). I started reading her books when they first hit the shelves in the 60’s and have been rereading them ever since, and still finding hints and plots I missed on the 45th reading!!

    • Jenny says:

      Aren’t they wonderful? I lurk on a forum where others discuss the books, and the convolutions of plot and character are literally endless.

  5. I’ve only read the mystery series. I really MUST read more widely as her writing is so good. I guess I should start with the Lymond Chronicles?

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, you must!!! Yes, start with Lymond, and I promise you will be hooked. I wound up loving the Niccolo books maybe even better — though is that apples to oranges? — but start with Lymond, anyway.

  6. Lisa says:

    I was so happy to see this! I should be getting ready for work but couldn’t resist when I saw this in my reader. I first heard about Lymond through a Georgette Heyer listserv, so I at least had the group to talk to as I devoured the books – and I have never read anything like I read these. I also gave them to a book friend, who started reading through the series with me, but I’ve never told her that I couldn’t wait for her more leisurely pace, and actually read the entire series straight through twice, before she finished. I enjoy the early Niccolo books more than the later, but to my mind King Hereafter is her best. Thanks for mentioning Gaskell’s read-along.

    • Jenny says:

      I think King Hereafter is the favorite for both Teresa and me, too. And I have given these books to… let’s see… five people now, successfully. Not a bad record!

      • Lisa says:

        I’ve struck out three other times. Two people told me the books were too long & complicated, and the third has never forgiven me for the fate of Christian Stewart & refuses to read further.

      • Jenny says:

        Oh no! I’ve been very conservative about those I’ve entrusted with these books. Only people I’m really sure of. I don’t think I could bear rejection.

  7. I hadn’t heard of this author before so thanks for sharing! I’m definitely checking out the readalong you mentioed.

  8. Heather says:

    I’m ashamed to say I have the whole set, have had them for probably 10 years (gasp!) and haven’t read them yet. I really must amend that, huh? You’re not the first I’ve heard tout the glories of Lymond. I’ll get to it, promise!

  9. Rohan says:

    I too love the Lymond series with a complete and utter and irrational devotion. They have everything : suspense, romance, swashbuckling adventure, erudition, and some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever met. I stayed up so late the night I finished the final one in the series! I recommended The Game of King’s in Open Letters’ summer reading feature this year–I wonder if anyone followed up and read it!

    • Jenny says:

      “complete and utter and irrational devotion” — that’s exactly it. That’s what made me re-read the entire series as soon as I finished it. I adore them. (And first-year papers do have that effect on the brain, don’t they?)

  10. Rohan says:

    Oh dear. The Game of KINGS, of course, no apostrophe! Fingers faster than brain–and I’ve just been correcting 1st-year papers, so my whole mental process is corrupt.

  11. I need to get back into these! I’ve read the first two in the Lymond Chronicles and loved them, and then I’ve been saving the rest for when I have “time” – because obviously I won’t want to read anything else once I start into them again.

  12. I adore historical fiction books that are packed with details, this writer is definitely for me. I’m so glad you’ve brought her to my attention!

    • Jenny says:

      Allow 25-50 pages to “get into” her books (though I think The Game of Kings is engaging right from the beginning!) and I think you’ll be hooked!

  13. gaskella says:

    I’ve got to Do Dunnett now haven’t I :) Thanks for the link!

    Actually the response I got to my post wondering whether I should have a go, and wondering if anyone else wanted to join in was so good, I was convinced instantly. I have the first three ready and waiting – just need to decide whether to just read, or split the first into three manageable chunks…

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Now these books sounds AMAZING…thank you for the feature.

    Enjoy your day!!

    Silver’s Reviews

  15. Helen says:

    Discovering the Lymond Chronicles for the first time in February this year was a wonderful experience and if Annabel’s readalong does go ahead I would be very tempted to join in! I’m looking forward to re-reading them now that I’ve bought the Companions and will be able to translate some of those obscure quotations. I should probably try to finish the House of Niccolo first, though (I’m in the middle of Scales of Gold at the moment). I love Nicholas and I’m enjoying the series, though it’s not having quite the same effect on me that the Lymond Chronicles did. King Hereafter sounds great – I can’t wait to read that one!

    • Jenny says:

      I think I tried the House of Niccolo for the first time too soon after the Lymond Chronicles, wanting them to be more of the same, and in fact they are quite different. When I read them a bit later, I loved them maybe even more. And King Hereafter best of all.

      • mumble says:

        Does a preponderance of men as the central characters appeal to male readers?  Hmmm. I don’t know. Let me mull on this. Plenty of men – but many more woman – read Jane Austen: The Jane Austen Book Club got it about right, I think: five woman and one man who joined in the hopes of meeting a woman. Have a greater proportion of men read Hemingway and Herman Melville? I guess “Yes.”

        In classic Bond, of course, there was the anti-Communist element that resonated with much of the target demographic, but, generically, I would say that James Bond appeals because of the gadgetry, the action and the Bond girls – who comfortably, comfortingly and handsomely – outnumber James handsomely. As far as I’ve got, at any rate, almost all Lymond’s women are just-good-friends, an annoying distraction or just not there.

        It wasn’t the [straight] men who were swooning over that iconic picture of Daniel Craig coming out of the water; it was the [straight] women, cf Colin Firth’s wet-shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice. Maybe that’s how a man can get his wife or girlfriend to go to the movie with him?

        I am taking an unusual (for me) foray into fantasy fiction, and the received wisdom is that this market has a predominantly male-geek audience. Since non-Pratchett fantasy is not usually my thing, I’m wondering what the attraction is. My gut feels that it’s less about the preponderance of male characters than the return to a world where there are strict social classes: there are knights and nobles, soldiers and stable-boys, and everyone knows their place. We have been living in republics and democracies so long that we yearn to return to the wolf-pack social element. As the narrative accelerates, I can imagine spectacles steaming up and hearts beating faster behind pocket-protectors as the readers, behind a charismatic and upper-class pack-leader, stand a-tiptoe at the mention of Crispin Crispian.

  16. Michael Brain says:

    KING HEREAFTER :I live near Chester and marvel that that part of the river Dee is where DD chose to portay Thorfinn running along the oars of the viking longship.

  17. I’ve always wanted to read her Lymond Chronicles! Thanks for the great post.

    Here’s my spotlight!

  18. Lisa says:

    There is a chat — marzipan on yahoo; to discuss all things Dunnett. And on another list you can get to from that, we are doing a slow read all the way through the LC, in honour of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Game of Kings. There are definitely spoilers in the discussions, tho. And we are a little over halfway through Disorderly Knights. So you might want to start your own, start at the beginning. YES, I love these books!

  19. mumble says:

    I, too, had never heard of the Lymond Chronicles until taken there by Jenny’s enthusiasm. I wonder if Dorothy Dunnett is an example of that curious phenomenon of a writer who achieves greater penetration across the Atlantic than at home? Patrick O”Brian, another of Jenny’s favourites, seems to be an example of this.

    I have a Theory of why there is such a Lymond lacuna amongst the population of voracious novel readers: it is that Lymond himself is such an alpha-male, an authentic Bad Boy of the “girls love Bad Boys” type, who can take any woman from any man, without even trying and perhaps even noticing. He doesn’t appeal to the male readership because they have enough of these troubles in Real Life without turning to fiction for more.

    Howsomever, encouraged by Jenny, I have read Vol. I and, having read it, ordered Vol. II, which is in my TBR, so there’s that. Maybe I am so confident in my sexuality that I am unthreatened by mere fiction.

    • Jenny says:

      That must be why you enjoy Lymond, of course. But I have often wondered why more men don’t seem to read these books. They are certainly swashbuckling enough; well-written, political, intriguing, fast-paced, with a preponderance of men as the central characters. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Perhaps you’re right that Lymond is too perfect; but then why does James Bond appeal?

  20. Wendy says:

    Read Lymond! Life-changing!

  21. Pingback: They don’t write ‘em like this anymore! Dorothy Dunnett’s “The Game of Kings” « The History Lady

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