Dorothy Dunnett, The Game of Kings and Queen’s Play

Reviewing these first two books in the Lymond Chronicles, I have confirmed both that they are exceptionally convincing and vivid historical novels and that it is nearly impossible for me to approach them with anything like critical detachment. Part of the reason is just how well-known they are to me after all these years; another part is how almost wholly concerned they are with historical context, plot, and character. If there are broad “themes,” they arise from these fairly concrete elements, I think, rather than from abstractions or philosophies. One idea they explore through the protagonist is what I might call the burden of excellence, the expectations and responsibilities that arise for the possessor of extraordinary gifts, such as those with which Lymond himself is endowed. In their own quite different styles, Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda also investigate the challenges faced by people of outstanding abilities who sometimes resent the leadership or guidance others want from them. In this age of Forrest Gump and books “for dummies,” we seem much more at ease withweakness and stupidity than with brilliance, but these protagonists show there is plenty of drama (and perhaps even more significance) in intelligence and strength.

The Lymond books do also engage with other ‘issues’ that are somewhat less personal or less tied to the main character, though he is the agent for their examination. Nationalism, for instance–the costs and benefits, beauties and absurdities–of love for country is a major problem in The Game of Kings and also, through the Irish connections, in Queen’s Play, which also picks up questions about aesthetics and morality. But though I have not done a patient analysis, I would not consider any of these ideas central to the ‘aboutness’ of the novels. They seem more part of the cultural context of the characters, which is a world in which these ideas are being given new urgency (as borders and allegiances shift) and new forms. That is, it seems to me at this point that the characters debate because they need to, to be themselves at their time in history, not because Dunnett has a larger agenda about Scottish identity or the role of art in life.

But it’s the charisma of the novels themselves that overwhelms me: they are remarkably wide-ranging, as daring as any of Scott’s in their insistence on informing us about history and politics, and allusive beyond any other novels I’ve read–and yet all of this never oppresses or overwhelms. It also transforms plots that are improbable, melodramatic, and grandiose into narratives that (to me, anyway) never feel that way. It’s remarkable, actually, how tawdry the novels can sound even in some of the blurbs that are meant to market them. Here’s the cover copy from my old Popular Library edition of Checkmate:

Against the splendor and squalor of the dissolute court of France…amid the crosscurrents of political intrigues and passionate liaisons…through a labyrinth of danger and deceit…a bastard nobleman searching for his heritage, and the beautiful virgin bride he married but could not bed, move toward the climax that will mean greatmess and fulfillment, or else disgrace, destruction and damnation…

Any reader of Checkmate knows that in a way, that’s an accurate description, but it is entirely unfaithful to the tone and quality of the novel, which is not at all the kind of bodice-ripping pathos-soaked costume drama evoked. I suspect that the publishers figured nobody would buy the book if it were described more accurately!

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