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Revision as of 11:52, 7 November 2009


The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The Game Of Kings is - try not to wince - the first in an historical saga dealing with Scotland in the sixteenth century. It's not usually this reviewer's kind of thing, at all at all at all. However, it's romantic fiction with a very classy edge. It's dense, it's complex, it's historically accurate. It's a rather large cut above the rest. It comes recommended for fans of the genre in need of a challenge or for serious readers looking to step outside their usual box.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: February 1999
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0140282394

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Gossip seeps through the mists of sixteenth century Scotland, adding more ripples to the pool of intrigue surrounding the infant Queen Mary. Lymond is back. He is an outlaw and a traitor, the black sheep of the Crawford family and the shame of his brother, Earl Culter. Returning from the slave galleys - yes, yes, I know! - he gathers around him a band of men, but for what purpose? Does he seek reconciliation? Or revenge? Or rebellion? Or does he seek to clear his name?

He seeks to clear his name and protect his child queen of course, what else? This book is a romantic spy story and not an historical romance. There isn't any kissing - well, not much - but Francis Crawford of Lymond is a hero to die for. He was a hero to die for when I first read the book, aged about fourteen and very impressionable, and he is now, on the umpteenth reading. However there is much more to The Game of Kings than its leading man. It is written with the most common conceit in historical fiction. That is, to insert a fictional family into a real setting, surrounded by real characters from the period, and give them input into events of the time. The Crawfords of Culter never lived, but they exist in this book alongside the child Mary, Queen of Scots and her nobles as if they really were there.

At this time the Scottish nobility sought above all else to protect their tiny kingdom. Their Queen was a minor. The strongest influence at court was her mother, the Queen Dowager, Mary of Guise, sister to the French King. Scotland was a minnow of a nation in comparison to the great European powers of the time - France, Spain and England - and her independence was threatened by the lack of a strong, adult monarch. And adding to this potent mix of intrigue and struggle for dominance was the growing schism between Catholic and Protestant right across the continent. You can see, then, that amidst the seething turmoil of sixteenth century Scotland there is an opening for the hero of your dreams! Imagine him: the attractive, enigmatic man whose motives are noble but held in question; the man whose honour and true patriotism means more than his reputation or personal happiness; the man whose wit outshines the great spymasters of the day, whose fighting skill eclipses the greatest soldiers; the man who can win the friendship of a child and STILL quote a girl a good old-fashioned love poem!

It's a classic, but not clichéd, plot. There is a conspiracy against Mary and a name to be cleared, and so it's also a whodunnit. Francis Crawford has few allies and can trust no one. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel he must don disguise. Like a Regency cad he must fight duels. And like Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men he must persuade a jury with his eloquence and rhetoric, except he is the accused. As time runs out and the true enemies of Scotland gain the upper hand, his chance gets slimmer. I shan't tell you if Francis Crawford of Lymond gets back his good name. I shan't tell you if he gets his girl. I shan't tell you who his girl is or if he has one, even. The Lymond books are not pulp fiction; the usual scripted happy ending is not a foregone conclusion by any means. You must be prepared to dive from the high board.

You won't read The Game of Kings in a couple of days; it's very long and very, very dense. It's a spy story with all the commensurate mysteries and twists and turns of plot you could wish for. It's fantastically well-written, combining an excellent building of tension and a wealth of intelligent detail which will teach you immense amounts about the time, its people, its politics and its works of art and literature. And it's never dull in the least. The cast of characters is huge and may cause small problems. When lost in the roller coaster of events, desperate to turn the page, you may get confused. Just don't read too quickly, as I do, have patience! All the characters, fictional or historical, come to life on the page. Lymond himself (he's the gorgeous one!), his elegant, gentle mother Sybilla, his bluff, uncomplicated brother Richard, the intelligent, subtle Mary of Guise, the gruff, crude Wat Scott of Buccleuch and the kind, honest Christian Stewart all people the pages and pull you in to the both the story and the time in which it is set.

This is blockbusting, highly romantic historical fiction with a very classy edge. The Game of Kings isn't meant to make you ponder the meaning of life. It has no wider allegories, no overall metaphor for which you need to grasp. It's just great stuff, but wonderfully intelligent great stuff. As with all good romances the virtues are all there: honour; truth; justice; self-sacrifice. I find, generally, there is little in romantic or historical fiction to tempt me. I'd finished with Jean Plaidy and Catherine Cookson before I hit my teens, and I've never felt tempted to go back, even for an afternoon's light reading. Spy novels leave me cold. Sagas bore me. And I never like the men! I am, I know, a trifle snotty about all of these genres. But the Game of Kings is historical fiction. The Game of Kings is romantic fiction. The Game of Kings is a spy novel. The Game of Kings is the first volume in a saga. And I REALLY like the man! I'm not sure what it is, but there's definitely something in that. You could, I guess, call The Game of Kings a rather large cut above the rest.

There are six books in this series, all with the complicated chess motif, all at least six hundred pages long, all as dense as this one. They will take you right across the sixteenth century from France to Malta, Turkey and Russia and you'll have to wait for the very last chapter in the very last one to find out what is really going on.

The next in the series is Queen's Play.

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Reviews of other books by Dorothy Dunnett

Queen's Play

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Dan Buerger said:

This review is right on the nose! It's my first Dunnett--a gift from a friend: all six of the Lymond Chronicles. To be honest, I was not looking forward to about 8 pounds of books concerning 16th century Scotland. I was wrong; the book is wonderful! I am a retired professor of American literature (thus the time to read way outside my field), and I have found another writer to cherish. Five gold stars from me!

Jill said:

You will love the one set in Turkey! Actually, Dunnett seems to have a bigger following your side of the pond than ours. A shame for we Brits to come second in appreciation of such a home-grown talent!