It was known soon after the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere with an illicit cargo and a man she should not have carried.
“Lymond is in Scotland.”
It was said by busy men preparing for war against England; with contempt, with disgust; with a side-slipping look at one of their number. “I hear the Lord Culter’s young brother is back.” Only sometimes a woman’s voice would say it with a different note, and then laugh a little.
This is our introduction to Dorothy Dunnett’s explosive historical novel, The Game of Kings. In the first chapter, set in God’s troubled year of 1547, there is political intrigue, conspiracy, outlawry, seduction, moral philosophy, a stabbing, arson, a jewel theft, all sorts of poetry, and a magnificently drunken pig. All of it is thanks to the leadership, the blue eyes, and the cold, brilliant mind of that rebel Lymond — and nearly none of it is precisely what it seems.
Jenny: I believe this is the third time I’ve read this book, and this time through, I really savored Dunnett’s knowledge and use of politics. Her sense of humor, her inimitable timing, her swashbuckling and the pacing of certain scenes and her broad use of poetic quotations, solely from sources that existed at the time — those things stand out on the first reading. But at first, I was lost with the intricate plotting: the gambits between Scotland and France, the tension with England, the couriers going back and forth. This time, I understood more of that, and got a new dimension of Lymond and even Richard as a result.
Teresa: This was my second time reading it—and many details from my first reading have drifted away into the black hole where so many of my bookish memories have gone—so a lot of the story still felt fresh and new. The thing that was different this time was that I knew already that each plot development might not be what it appears because Lymond never does what’s expected. And because in this book, we’re still getting to know him, his actions are continually surprising.
One of the impressive things about these books is that although knowing the history can enhance the experience, you really don’t need more than the broad outlines to understand and enjoy the story. Dunnett provides enough context to help readers through, and she piques readers’ (at least this reader’s) curiosity about the period so you want to learn more.
Jenny: Lymond is the standout in this book, isn’t he? He proves himself a consummate leader of men, a soldier, a marvelous humorist (think of the episode with the Spaniard and the lisping Lord Grey — “Your Castilian, sin dude, is as good as the mine”), a musician, an athlete, a perfect shot, a drinker, an orator. Yet he keeps himself to himself; his secrets do not emerge until the final fifty pages of the book or so. Do you think Lymond’s too perfect, too much of a romance hero?
Teresa: That’s a good question. I do feel that he’s more idealized than Dunnett’s other leading men. His tendency to secrecy and manipulation is something I generally consider a flaw, but in the context of this book, he has good reason for not revealing what he’s up to, and he did share his intentions with some who really needed to know. Although as I think about it, I wonder if some of the tragedy in this book could have been avoided if Lymond had been more transparent. Everything that happens with Christian, for example, gives me pause.
Jenny: Well, it gives everyone else pause, too! Lymond’s take on it — that she’s not harmed and indeed is given some much-needed excitement — is betrayed a bit at the end, isn’t it? I wonder what Christian’s own understanding of it is. (She is such a wonderful character.) I agree with you that Lymond’s biggest flaw is his desire for other people to give him the benefit of the doubt even when all the visible evidence goes the other way. This reading made me think especially hard about Lymond’s brother, Richard, who is far from stupid. He has a long history with Lymond, and therefore he may have a blind spot. But Lymond’s behavior doesn’t help at all. Richard’s neglect and unforgivable cruelty, and the way he skirts close to forgetting his duty to his country, is at least partly Lymond’s fault, in my opinion. He expects everyone to sort wheat from chaff as quickly as he does himself.
Teresa: I’d love to know what Christian’s thoughts were too. I think she enjoyed being part of something so monumental, but would she have enjoyed it more knowing that Lymond trusted her with the truth? And wouldn’t knowing that someone did trust him so implicitly be a good thing for Lymond? Maybe it would help him be more open.
The thing is, people who mistrust Lymond have every reason to do so. It turns out that they’re incorrect in their mistrust—and Richard carries his vindictiveness much too far—but every single thing that happens casts Lymond in the worst possible light. Not all of those events are Lymond’s fault, but I can hardly blame Richard for making the assumptions he did.
Jenny: I blame Richard’s cruelty and his willful blindness, but not his assumptions. No, certainly not all the events are Lymond’s fault. He makes a few friends — the Somervilles are probably the most satisfying of them — but a lot of enemies, and they’re all out to make trouble for him. This time through, I really enjoyed reading the villainous character of Margaret Lennox. Her treachery, her self-interest, and her cleverness as a woman moving in powerful circles were great fun to watch. I also liked watching headstrong Will Scott, blundering through his decisions on limited information. It was a little like watching someone trying to hit a piñata with a machete.
Dunnett’s prose is such a pleasure, don’t you think? She can be poignant or very funny, there’s politics and battle and marvelous character development, and her descriptive prose is clear and evocative. From that first scene with Mungo Tennant and the drunken pig (“Shy as a dogtooth violet”), it’s clear this is going to be something a little different. I often have trouble convincing people to read Dunnett. Why do you think that is? It has something for everyone, really!
Teresa: I think a long series of long books is always a harder sell than a single book. It’s a big commitment, and given the books’ reputation for being addictive, I can understand why people hesitate. I think, too, that Dunnett is writing about a time and place that doesn’t capture people’s imaginations as easily as the Tudor Court or the American Civil War. I find, however, that the setting is part of what makes the books feel fresh!
And although I agree with you that there’s something for everyone in these books, I also acknowledge that some readers don’t want all the things. Or at least not all the things at once! There’s no denying that these are dense books, and you have to be ready to live with your own confusion as you’re reading them. That’s not an issue for me, but I can imagine that if I tried these books for the first time when I was looking for a brain break, I might not have persevered.
Jenny: Well, if they find these books unpleasantly wonderful and addictive, wait until they discover the House of Niccolo series and King Hereafter! They’ll really be suffering then!
Teresa and I re-read The Game of Kings partly because it was time for us to have that pleasure — these books are endlessly re-readable and endlessly discussable — and partly because Gaskella nudged us into doing it. Read her conclusions about the book here, and join her readalong of the next book in the series, Queen’s Play, which takes place at the corrupt and glittering French court. We certainly plan to!