So. My favourite book series is the Lymond Chronicles, written by the incomparable Dorothy Dunnett. You’ve probably never heard of it. It’s historical fiction, following the life of one fictional Scottish nobleman named Francis Crawford of Lymond (Lymond to you and me, Mr Crawford to irritated young girls trying to save him from himself, Francis to his very few friends) over the span of a decade or so. Here’s the thing: historical fiction is a genre I tend to avoid, but Dorothy Dunnett is just that good.
My love for the series started quite accidentally. I was browsing in an old bookshop sometime in 2008 when I found myself eyeing a copy of The Game of Kings, the first book in the series, thinking that the title sounded familiar. Upon reading the blurb I realised it wasn’t what I expected at all—it was about a minor nobleman turned outlaw in 1547 Edinburgh who was trying to trace three men. I considered it for a while. On the one hand, if the title stuck to mind it probably was because someone had recommended it. On the other hand, I didn’t even read much historical fiction (my primary genre of choice had always been science fiction and fantasy), and knew nothing at all about sixteenth-century Scotland.
It was on sale. The cover had a castle and horses. Maybe it’ll have interesting sword fights, I thought, so I picked up the book, paid for it, and took it home with me.
Thus began my love affair with the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
Oh, we got off to a rough start. My lack of background in anything even remotely similar to sixteenth-century European politics made it feel like I had taken a plunge into the deep end, left to sink or swim on my own. The only historical personage I recognised in the whole list of characters was Mary Queen of Scots, and she was a four-year-old child. I’d read a few pages and go, ‘What?’ and put the book back down, completely baffled. When Lymond said his first line, I just blinked at him in utter bewilderment, immediately thrown off despite being only on page two. The sheer number of words I didn’t know was confounding. There were quotes in French, people speaking in Scots, Latin being thrown around like it was the law, historical figures I’d never heard of, and way too many classical references I didn’t get.
Lymond himself wasn’t very helpful in those early chapters. This was the clever, malicious, sharp-witted polyglot of a man who robbed his mother, terrified his sister-in-law, tried to burn down said mother’s house, threatened his brother, and enticed an impressionable young man into joining his merry band of outlaws, all in the first thirty pages. And we were supposed to like him?
I’d close the book and go to bed.
This continued for the rest of the month, when suddenly, one night, I was simply ploughing through the passages, not bothering to look things up. It was at that moment I realised that the book was the best thing I had read all year, untranslated poetry and Sir Wat’s sometimes incomprehensible accent be damned. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand so many things; it was a rollicking adventure and Dunnett was hilarious. The dialogue, especially, left me in fits of laughter.
It was a very, very good book. It also had some really interesting sword fights.
I finished it and was desperate for more. I scrounged bookshops for the rest of the series and picked up all the books I could find, and ordered what I couldn’t online. I read into the night and went to work vaguely dazed from lack of sleep, resenting this nine-to-five routine that took me away from the sixteenth century and Lymond as he left Scotland for France and Malta and Algiers and Turkey and Russia. No one I knew had read the books, not even my bookish online friends. I tried to convince people to pick the first book up and failed abysmally.
I read parts of the books with my heart hammering in my throat, thinking, ‘She wouldn’t!’, but she did. Oh, she did. Think of Dunnett as the predecessor to George RR Martin when it comes to her willingness to kill her characters or make them suffer, only with better prose and pathos. (Sorry, A Song of Ice and Fire fans. This is the master right here.)
I finished the last book, Checkmate, and reached back for the first one, because it had been that great an adventure. I didn’t reread the whole thing immediately, of course; there were other books to be read, some of them even by Dorothy Dunnett. But I leafed through the pages, seeing new meaning in the passages, discovering new connections between the characters. I made time to look up the historical figures and the quotes and the poetry, leaving me rather bemused at my willingness to research a historical period I previously hadn’t cared about.
Then I read the House of Niccolò series (which I also loved, albeit a little less, perhaps, than I had Lymond), and King Hereafter (which I loved a bit more than Niccolò), and still haven’t managed to get my hands on other books by Dunnett.
I reread the Lymond Chronicles in 2018, and was planning to do the same with Niccolò, but didn’t manage to get past the first book. Then the pandemic hit.
When the lockdowns started, I was restless and couldn’t seem to pick anything to read or watch. I’m not sure why I went back to the Lymond Chronicles; perhaps it was because it was familiar, and I was sure that it was something that I would enjoy. Instead of rereading the series, though, I got the audiobook of The Game of Kings, and found that I loved it more than I thought I would. The whole series is read by David Monteath.
So I continued listening to the series and right now I’m at book four, which is Pawn in Frankincense, pictured here. It’s taken me months to get through the books—each book is over twenty hours long and I don’t listen to them every day (and there were other books I was listening to in between).
I definitely noticed different nuances I didn’t pick up while reading. Sometimes it’s just the subtle emphasis the narrator puts on a word. Sometimes it’s the feeling he imbues into a line of dialogue. Sometimes it’s the accent. (The narrator is Scottish, of course. I have no idea how great or how terrible he’s doing with the Romance languages, but I assume he’s doing okay. His Arabic pronunciation needs a bit of work, though.)
It’s worth the time it takes to listen to the books. It’s definitely worth the time it takes to read the books. If you pick up The Game of Kings and you find it bewildering or too difficult, I’d suggest you continue reading up to page 100, at least, before giving up on it. There’s a Spanish don whose supply train has just been robbed, and he’s obviously (dramatically) irate about it. It’s a pretty ridiculous sequence, especially when you consider everything else that’s going on, but this is where everything fell into place for me, and I decided, yes, this is definitely worth my time.