Review: The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
This was always going to be the slightly unfair proposition in me reviewing both of Dorothy Dunnett's sublime historical fiction series - the order I read them in was inevitably going to affect the way I viewed them. It was always going to be impossible not to compare the one I read second to the one I read first, and of course that's happened. But, really, it's not Lymond's fault that I met Niccolò first.
Very briefly, the main story is that of Francis Crawford of Lymond, the younger brother of Lord Culter of Scotland. He has been an outlaw for the past five years after being accused of treachery at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542, the result of which the balance of power in the Anglo-Scottish wars of the sixteenth century tipped definitively in favor of the English. Solway Moss is also where King James V of Scotland died, leaving as his heir his infant daughter Mary (yeah, that Mary) and his wife Marie de Guise, the daughter of the duc de Guise and one of the more powerful factions at the French court at the time, as Regent (I'll stop because I could, quite cheerfully, talk about the dynastic and political gamesmanship of the late Medieval and Early Renaissance period for years). Lymond is now back in Scotland as the leader of a band of outlaws, and the English are constantly invading Scotland, and Marie is politicking with France and England to try and get the four-year-old Queen of Scots married to a safe monarch, and Francis's brother Richard wants to kill him and Richard's wife Mariotta has a thing for Francis and there's also a blind girl who's got the hots for Lymond (I think), and oh my word there's just so much going on.
Ultimately, as a first offering, I preferred Niccolò Rising to The Game of Kings. Even though the Lymond Chronicles is set a century after the House of Niccolò, the Lymond Chronicles are Dunnett's first major literary work - and the difference in the quality of the writing is immediately obvious. I'm not saying the writing in The Game of Kings is bad - far from it. It is better writing for a first novel than many contemporary authors achieve in their whole careers. I just think that in the twenty-five years between The Game of Kings and Niccolò Rising, Dunnett had - well - twenty-five years of experience as a writer, and had written several successful historical fictions, and so was able to put that experience and that knowledge to bear in one of the greatest opening novels I have ever read.
The introduction to Francis Crawford of Lymond is a bit messier than our introduction to Nicholas van der Poele. The analogy I used when describing my thoughts to my friend (the one who recommended this author to me; thanks forever for that rec, my darling, these series are the best things to have ever happened to me) is watching an absolutely insane tennis match with 800 players on the same court, each playing by their own sets of rules. It's impossible to keep track of the different characters and the 36 million moving parts, even with the character list at the front; and the way the book is segmented - into parts, then into chapters, then into sections - made me feel like I was watching a tableau rather than being immersed in a story. Also, the fact that speech patterns of characters change throughout the book - at one point, an important player on the English side, Lord Grey, had a lisp and then he doesn't anymore - makes it very difficult to keep track of who is where and doing what. Nobody stays in one place long enough for you to get your head around what their motives or plans are. I think that's part of what she's trying to do, insinuating that Lymond is the only one who can keep track of all the moving parts because he's the only one with the brains to do it - but oh my word was it much.
Also, I just found Lymond annoying. He was redeemed for me by the end of the book, after his background and backstory was more fully explored and he got taken prisoner approximately 89,382 times, but he never stops talking in riddles, speaking in random verse, and dropping in dead languages and weird dialects that I definitely do not understand or speak. Like, I get that this takes place in Scotland - but really, Dorothy, nobody speaks archaic Gaelic anymore! What was with the random Gaelic verse about chess at the beginning of every chapter????
But, globally, the book remained excellent - the pacing was a bit off in the last 75 pages, but that was the only real issue. The emotional climax of the book, the big reveal (another EXCELLENT big reveal by DD on this one) are separated by a few too many pages. The characters were well-developed, fully nuanced people with well-articulated, separated, recognizable, motivations and dialogue and phrases. All the emotional punches and moments land exactly the way they're meant to, and none of the wins feel like cop-outs. The losses carry the stakes that the time period deserves. And, again, the way Dorothy Dunnett wields the history is magnificent and in my opinion has no match in the historical fiction genre - the research, the strength of her women in a way that is true to the time period, the details that make the setting and the story so vividly real, the way the time period is an accessory to the story rather than the story itself.
I can't wait to dive back into the rest of this series - and hopefully as I get to know the characters better and my Gaelic improves I'll be able to keep up with all these crazy Scots.