Review: King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett
BEWARE: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Okay, you've been adequately warned; let us now proceed.
Wowza. Just wowza. Dorothy Dunnett hasn't, to my knowledge, ever done something similar - crammed an entire story into one jam-packed, breathless, 700+-page book, instead of stretching out a story over a longer span of books and developing very, very slow-burn and long-timeline schemes and plans. I also don't think she's ever written a main character who is so straightforwardly a hero, instead of a complex sociopath that you find yourself rooting for and then feel conflicted about rooting for for the entirety of the eight books you've somehow thought was a good idea, emotionally, to read.
I also think that, chronologically, King Hereafter came out between Lymond and House of Niccoló - and in the sense of scope and characterization and writing, I think that definitely came through in the novel. I especially noticed that in the character of Groa, who - while I, obviously, adored her and wished she had a more important part in the narrative - definitely read like a rough draft of Gelis.
But, having said all of that, I loved this book (obviously I did; Dorothy can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned). I loved the little winks at the Shakespearean myth, and the way she builds out the other myths surrounding Macbeth. One of my favourite little treats was the character of Lulach, and how he stood as a cipher for the concept of history and immortality and myth - and I also loved the way the narrative felt like it was building to two separate climaxes, one taking place on the page as we followed the ups and downs of Thorfinn's consolidation of power, and the other one only hinted at but ultimately even more consequential - the Norman invasion of 1066.
The pace of the narrative was really expertly handled, as well. The novel is separated into four parts, and each part focuses on a specific instance of Thorfinn taking and then consolidating his position as King of Scotland (Alba, as it's known contemporaneously) - and then Part 4 focuses on how it all falls apart, and how he loses it. The fact that each section tackles one specific hardship means that we got to really arrow down on Thorfinn's strategy and planning, and got to see multiple chess matches play out over a broad sweep of time without ever feeling rushed, or limited to a particular moment.
The one thing that I wish Dorothy hadn't done was that she threw all of the blame for Thorfinn's downfall on external circumstances, and none of it onto Thorfinn making a bad decision; this I think served to make him a bit less complex and realistic at the end, but considering how broad this book is, that's truly a minor quibble.
And, also, the balls of this woman to kill off her main character off page???? Hilary Mantel and George R.R. Martin could literally never. Eat your hearts out, you two.
And, as always, Dunnett's writing is just superb - everything is sharp and precise; there's not a single word or sentence or phrase or image misplaced; every single detail that is brought up is exactly relevant, sometimes several hundreds of pages later. And nothing is handed to the reader: everything happens in subtext and innuendo and references, so this is most certainly not a book you read while half-paying attention (mostly because if you do that you will be completely confused by the amount of half-siblings, stepchildren, third and fourth marriages and cousins, and by the fact that everyone seems to have a variation of the same three names). But, as always with this author, if you're willing to put in the energy and the time you get so much enjoyment out of this novel, from both the sheer scale of the narrative and the brilliance of her writing.
Highly, highly recommend, obviously.