It’s time for my annual re-read of The Lymond Chronicles, a historical fiction series by Dorothy Dunnett that remains popular despite being first published in 1961. Game of Kings, the first book in the series is one of the hardest and most difficult books I have ever read but while it takes time and effort to read all the books in this series, the reward is well worth it. Francis Crawford of Lymond is a truly unforgettable character that has been much imitated in fantasy fiction.
Review ( Spoiler free)
I will be honest, I gave up reading the first book in the series, about 150 pages into the Game of Kings. The first few chaotic chapters with a possibly drunken pig, people speaking in poetry, the splattering of French and other languages takes some getting used to. Dorothy Dunnett makes no allowances for the reader with limited French and no explanations for Lymond’s rotten behaviour at the start of the book. So, I gave up.
But then, I was on holiday and had finished all my books and had only this partially left book on my kindle as reading material. But this time, I was hooked by the story and the characters especially Francis of Lymond. I ended up reading the entire series in days.
Overriding story arc
The books ( titles based on chess moves ) follows Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter over a period of ten years in a tumultuous and eventful period of Scottish and English history ( ten years before Elizabeth the first ascends to the throne). Francis in the course of these books plays fugitive, spy, mercenary, courtier, politician, hero and villain. The books cleverly intertwine real history with historical characters into Francis’s story.
Francis is loyal to Scotland and his Queen with most of the plots dedicated to this either as the key plot or in the background. But the Lymond chronicles also takes place in countries placing Lymond as a key player or pawn in their political struggles. Throughout the series, Lymond struggles with his relationship with his mother, Machiavellian in her own right, his brother and the truth about his parentage.
Dorothy Dunnett was an amazingly skilful and inventive writer, her prose particularly in the later books is something I would aspire to ( if I ever begin to write more seriously). Her descriptions of Lymond are vivid and sensual which puts into context why so many of the women and men are obsessed with either owning Lymond or destroying him.
Lymond is the larger than life main character in all these books, but none of the books except Checkmate shows his point of view. The reader builds a picture of Lymond from the opinions of the many people in his orbit who either hate or love him.
The plots in each of the books are intricate and complex with a nice little twist that I never saw coming. The books are long, but the pace hardly slows but is most welcome when it does, if only to give the reader some time to catch their breath.
Lymond as the main character grows through the series although he is the typical tortured hero but this is understandable given his past. He is talented, a polyglot, a lover but he isn’t perfect and he is full of so many realistic flaws.
The women in these books are strong, interesting and wield their power in a realistic way given the time period,( the battle for the throne of England was between women) so it’s no surprise that Francis’s greatest adversary is often a woman. Philipa, Sybil, Margaret, Martha are some of my favourite women in fiction.
The series ends when Lymond is finally at peace with himself and his family as well as his own destiny as a leader but he has also found the love of his life.
The book is surprisingly diverse given when it was written as there are bisexual characters, visually impaired and racial diversity to some degree.
That first book!
You will need a dictionary, google and a translator to make sense of the first quarter but then the prose is more accessible. The rest of the books are more accessible. There are some outdated and offensive racial terms used in this book.
There are so many characters and titles to keep track of on all of these books and you do need to remember them as they often pop up in later books.
Content warning- rape ( off scene), sexual cohesion ( off scene), sexual abuse( off scene), whipping, death of under 16-year-olds.
Perfect for fans
Anybody who loves epic fantasy- think of Games of thrones without dragons or Zombies.
Are there any other Lymond fans out there?