The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett

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The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett, Orbit, 1996, ISBN 1-85723-394-8, f15.99, 455pp.

I hesitated before reading this book, the first in a set of six collectively called “The Lymond Chronicles.” I’m already three deep in Patrick O’Brian’s historical series, so I wondered if I would be tempting my history filter to overload by starting another so soon? Not to worry, because the two time periods and areas are quite unlike each other, and there seems little chance that I will mix the two in my memory. Comparing the two to each other might prove useful, though.

Dorothy Dunnett has only one protagonist, instead of O’Brian’s two, and he is a figure whom is quite larger than life. When we meet Lymond at the beginning of this novel, he is a confirmed rogue, wanted by his native Scotland as a traitor and persona non grata as well with the British. He survives as a Robin Hood, with a band of sixty-odd men, taking advantage of the interminable conflict between England and Scotland to feed and supply his men. He seems to revel in antagonizing his older brother, possibly with a purpose (trying to claim his inheritance a la the Biblical Esau?). An excellent swordsman, a fierce and loyal leader, and a polyglot–there seems to be nothing that his quick wit and rapier-like mind cannot do.

Well, there is one thing, and that is to explain himself. Much of the plot of The Game of Kings concerns Lymond’s search for the Englishman who can restore his reputation in England, who can provide him an alibi that will show his kindred that he is not a traitor. Yet his pride will not allow him to explain (or try to explain) just how he expects this to be achieved to anyone–family or friends. Which is a pity, because several characters here would react quite differently if Lymond would only speak his mind. Speak he often does, in several languages (a passing knowledge of Latin and French helps when reading some of the trickier passages), but these are often quips, not information.

Like the best rogues of old, you cannot help but like the fellow. He has his own code of conduct and, especially compared to the obsessive maniac his older brother becomes, a style that recalls the best of Sean Connery (another Scot, don’t you know) in his portrayal of James Bond. That’s a comparison that sits a little truer–Lymond is the 16th century Bond.

This is adventure stuff of the finest degree. There are shooting contests, secret raids, impersonations, captures, intrigues, and a long, glorious duel between brothers. Yes, there is history here, too; I understand a little more about the makeup of Scotland and its past politics than I did before. Dunnett’s details are not in the rigging, as O’Brian’s are, though. She has a much larger picture in mind, and if she throws in an Errol Flynn to keep you amused while getting to it, so what?

I more than enjoyed this, and I will most likely continue the series at a later date.

[Finished July 1999]

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