Queen's Play by Dorothy Dunnett

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Queen's Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Queen's Play is the second in the series of books by Dorothy Dunnett about Francis Crawford. The series is of high quality and this particular instalment adds a dense whodunnit subplot to the mix. It paints a vivid picture of the debauchery of the French court in the sixteenth century and sets out the political situation well. The chess motif is fascinating. However, the main thrust of the book will be confusing unless you have already read the first in the series, The Game Of Kings.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: December 1986
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 0099489503

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Queen's Play is the second volume in Dorothy Dunnett's series about one Francis Crawford of Lymond. It's set in the sixteenth century; a time of political intrigue, religious reformation, intellectual debate and scientific discovery. The first book - The Game of Kings - introduced Lymond, second son of a (fictional) Scottish noble family inserted into the (real) events of the time. Lymond is highly intelligent, skilled in verse and music, but in diplomacy and warfare too. He declaims like a dream, he fights like a demon, and he is, of course, a man of honour. And of course too, he is a man of honour which is called into question. The Game of Kings sees him return to Scotland from exile in order to clear his name and save the child Queen Mary from a plot against her.

In Queen's Play we move across the sea from troubled, endangered little Scotland under minority rule, to the dissolute and immoral but glittering and very, very dangerous court of France. Young Mary Queen of Scots, still only seven, has been betrothed to her cousin the Dauphin, heir to the French throne, and is living at the French court. Away from home and from her mother, Mary of Guise, she is vulnerable. Within the framework of sixteenth century European politics this isn't a universally popular situation. The English certainly don't want to see an alliance between Scotland and France. Queen Mary of England has a more than proprietorial interest in her neighbouring little nation. She is also struggling to contain the Protestant movement and keep her land as a strong Catholic power among the other two main European players; France and Spain. The Irish simply want to see the end of the English occupation of their country and are prepared to use any means and any political pawn to achieve their end. They need French help.

Double-dealing and intrigue surrounding all these things makes the French court a dangerous place to be. Francis Crawford, his name cleared and now a secret agent of the Scottish Queen Dowager must find the assassin hired to kill his infant monarch and protect both the little girl and her intended marriage. He must do it before he is himself discovered and destroyed. Indeed, he must do it before he destroys himself. This hero, like all the best heroes, has his personal demons to confront too. Guilt and perceived betrayal weigh heavily on such a man. But where is he?

Events, like events in all the Lymond books, move fast. Francis Crawford is nowhere to be seen and the net closes more and more quickly around the red-haired, spoiled little girl so vital to her nation. Who is Phelim O'Liamroe the Irish princeling? Who is the strange, drunken but beguiling bard Thady Boy Ballagh who entrances the most jaded of French courtiers with his voice and his playing of the harp? Who is Robin Stewart, the anxious, embittered archer? Who is Oonagh O'Dwyer the beautiful, mysterious Irish woman? Who is the would-be regicide? Where is Lymond and who can he trust? If you guess while you're reading you're better at this than I! Of course, we find our leading man eventually. As the plot and endless sub-plots weave together then pull apart again, over and over, you will find yourself turning page after page, desperate to find out what will happen. Finally, in scenes of absolute mayhem, there is a race on foot across the rooftops of Paris.

Oh, this really is historical fiction at its absolute best. It's exciting; it's romantic, it's dense; it's vivid; it's moving. And it's some of the best writing I've seen in any plot-driven novels, romantic or otherwise. Faultlessly researched and most definitely not an easy read, Queen's Play sets out the political landscape of sixteenth century Europe without compromising history to plot. And in her central character, Lymond, Dunnett is perhaps trying to give us not only the perfect hero, but also a distillation of his time and place. Through him she discusses the Renaissance, the military, literature, philosophy and religion. I think perhaps for her, and hopefully for us, Francis Crawford of Lymond is everything of the best that time could produce. Remember: specialism is a relatively modern phenomenon. During the sixteenth century it was almost possible for a member of the cultured literati to hold inside his head almost the entire sum of western knowledge, scientific and literary. The arts and the sciences still converged in that world. Religion and sex were still compatible; a spiritual man could talk of the physical without appearing worldly. Through Lymond, Dunnett makes reference not only to politics and poetry, but also to the nascent disciplines of navigation, astronomy and physiology. It's heady stuff.

Complex, erudite, compelling, Queen's Play is entertainment of the highest order. You're not being asked to make any philosophical assessment. You won't come out of it with any unanswered questions about the meaning of life. Without knowing it, though, you'll have absorbed a huge amount of intelligent information about the time and its culture and politics. Queen's Play is not easy. It requires your concentration. Don't think you'll read it in an afternoon by the pool when you're on holiday. You will notice the chess reference in the titles of both Queen's Play and The Game of Kings - it's apt. These books are as complicated of plot and as peopled with characters as any spy novel. The chess game takes six instalments and thousands of pages to unfold, but it's worth it.

Perhaps though, you should start by reading our review of The Game of Kings, first in the series.

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Reviews of other books by Dorothy Dunnett

The Game of Kings

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