It’s been a long while since I’ve been so thoroughly captivated by a body of work. But that then is the power of Dorothy Dunnett, one of literature’s best kept secrets. I do not even remember any longer how I chanced upon Miss Dunnett; just glad that I did.
My introduction to Miss Dunnett has been via Francis Crawford of Lymmond, perhaps the greatest of all literary heroes (yes, he far surpasses the inestimable Mr. Darcy and can teach a thing or two to Rhett Butler). Francis Crawford, younger brother to Lord Culter, can break into poetry, philosophy and bawdry at the tip of a hat – and use English, Fresh, Gaellic, Scottish and most likely a few other languages while he’s doing it. He’s fiercely loyal to his country. He can inhabit and discard personas at ease (a skill which he uses to great comic results). Old or young, king or soldier, everyone wants him at their side (including the 8 year old Mary Queen of Scots). Conflate swordsmanship par excellence with a wild imagination (one that would be called thinking-out-of-the-box in today’s parlance) and you have at hand schemes and plots which not only spell doom for the English and the French but also make for some spectacularly funny episodes (the sheep scene in the Disorderly Kinghts or the episode with the Spanish Don in the Game of Kings). I can go on and on and use a few more superlatives while I’m at it.
Not only the hero whose 10 yrs of life we follow through the six-book series but also the secondary characters (more than half of whom are actual historical figures) are very well-etched and make one want to root for them. Or in the case of a few characters make one hate them with a fervour. Yes, so completely does Miss Dunnett draw you into her world.
Be warned though that Miss Dunnett is unrelenting in her erudition. She demands absolute engagement with her story – slip up and you’ll find yourself scrambling to figure out what exactly happened. The setting is mid-16th century Europe and to someone with nary a clue about that period (like this reader) the series poses its own set of challenges (and quite frankly I found the intrigues and counter-intrigues of the Scottish, French and English courts exhausting at times).
Add to this a prose which cannot be breezed through; yet a prose which demonstrates again and again just how pliant words are in Miss Dunnett’s extremely capable hands. She wields them to reveal vividly and with great poetry the disposition of her characters, “Stewart’s coarse skin was moist with heat; the brows indented, line upon line, where the fretful pressures of his spirit squeezed into his flesh day and night”. She dumps into the reader’s head a complete and fully formed picture of her characters with phrases like an “awkward clod of an Irishman”. And then there are constructions that the reader just falls in love with: “It was the English, mauled and unregarded, of a person who spoke many languages and left them broken-hinged and crumbled like clams, solely attacked for the meat.”
Let’s move to the story. Richly layered with unexpected twists the plots across the books are complex and feed into each subsequent book as well. For the first two books I was at a loss as to what was going on till almost 100 pages into the book. And then as I caught onto the bigger story in the background I found myself breathless. And impatient to plunge deeper and deeper into the labyrinth which Miss Dunnett has built. This tension between my desire to steamroll ahead into the story and stop and assimilate the historical underpinnings being revealed (along with savouring the word-songs) characterizes my experience of the Lymmond Chronicles so far.
Quite easily, I have found one of those series which I know for sure I will be returning to. I think I will be able to adopt a more critical perspective and speak with some objectivity only on my re-reading of the entire series. In the meanwhile I have 3.7 more novels to devour and gush about!
P.S. I have an awful suspicion that the title ‘A Game of Thrones’ might have been very well ‘inspired’ by Miss Dunnett’s decade’s earlier ‘A Game of Kings’.