There may be spoilers for previous books in this review.
“The more modest your expectations, the less often you will court disappointment.” ― Dorothy Dunnett, Checkmate
Lymond is stuck in France and stuck in a marriage he is desperate to escape, so he agrees to France’s terms to ensure his divorce from Phillipa is granted. He is promptly embroiled in politics, intrigue and actual war but that is easier to manage than then an increasingly complicated relationship between him and Phillipa. Will Lymond ever find out the truth about his parentage? Will he find happiness with the woman he loves? Will he ever be free from Margaret Lennox?
So this is the final book in the Lymond story and I have to say it is the perfect finale to possibly the best historical fiction ever written. The covers for the Lymond books on my Kindle are abstract and boring but some of the older editions have a more romantic theme which always seemed to be a little misplaced. But there is a strong undercurrent of romance and angst throughout Checkmate that would explain why I have sometimes seen these books referred to as historical romance.
Lymond loves Phillipa and Phillipa loves Lymond and they are legally married. But Lymond, supported by almost everyone in his world with one exception, is determined that Phillipa will marry someone more suitable like Austin Grey. Poor Phillipa, even when she realises Lymond loves her too, she still cannot have her man, because he will not stay married to her. This has to be the most original barrier to true love in a book.
“I despised men who accepted their fate. I shaped mine twenty times and had it broken twenty times in my hands.”
The Game of Kings,Dorothy Dunnett
I have seen the first book of the Lymond chronicles compared to the Game of Thrones and it is easy to see why but The Game of Kings is so much more- you just have to get the first few chapters to get there. I gave up after the third chapter and only picked the book up again when I literally had nothing else on hand to read but so glad I did.
The story is set in a turbulent time in English and Scottish history- the decade before Elizabeth and Mary take up their thrones. Francis Lymond, the Master of Culter, the disgraced, second son of a noble family and traitor has returned to his homeland of Scotland and is on a mission.
Even though Lymond is the hero or more accurately anti-hero, we never read the book from his perspective but we learn about him through the eyes of the people around him and as their perception changes, so does ours. The author does this so well that I didn’t realise that I hadn’t read a single direct thought of Francis till the end of the book. Lymond almost seems too good to be true- good looking, a skilled fighter and leader, clever, fluent in many languages but we share his brother’s, friends’, allies’ and enemies’ frustration as Lymond is a hard person to like especially at the start of the book. His motives are murky and he knows how to use his charm and sensuality to achieve his goals, for example, poor Will, what was he expecting when he followed Lymond up the stairs in that Inn.
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.