The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (1961)

Do you have a book – or a series of books – that you keep in a box marked ‘ I want to read, it, I know I’ll love it, but I have to wait for the perfect moment’ ?

I did – I still do.

And I say that because Dorothy Dunnett’s books used to live in that box, but they don’t live there any more.

I began to collect those books when they were out of print in this country; because I have always loved historical novels, and because the author of these historical novels was so lauded. I have come across many readers who read and re-read her books, and I have a very clear memory of a bookish television programme, some years ago, where I saw an author speaking so articulately of how she and her husband would eagerly await publication of each new book, and read aloud to each other.

I was sure that I would love them, but I hesitated to start reading because there were so many thick books, because I heard they were filled with complex plots, and a wealth of abstruse literary and historical allusions.

In the end though, the arguments for reading became overwhelming.

I picked up the first book, and now I can tell you that I loved it.

It was complex, I’m quite sure there were things I missed, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going on, but none of that mattered. I was captivated, I had to keep turning the pages, and it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, talking at very great length …

The story opens in Scotland, in the 1540s.

The king’s widow, Mary of Guise, rules the country as regent for her infant daughter, who the world will come to know as Mary Queen of Scots. England has a boy king, Edward VI, and his realm is governed by the Lord Protector. He wants the Queen of Scots to be the bride of his King, so that he will rule over the whole of island of Great Britain. His troops are making forays into Scotland, and some of the Lords of that country are inclined to throw their lots in with the English. The rulers of the great European powers are watching, eager to see what will happen, and thinking how that might benefit, what they might do to steers events.

That’s an interesting point in history that I hadn’t considered too much, I don’t remember finding in fiction before, and it was lovely to follow a story in that period, so richly evoked.

That story was sparked by the dramatic return from exile of Francis Crawford of Lymond: the younger son of a noble family, a lover of wit and game-playing, and a former galley-slave. It gradually became clear that he was on a mission to prove himself innocent of a six-year-old charge of treason, that he believed that one of three distinguished Englishmen held the key to the success or failure of that mission, but that to have any chance of success he must avoid a great many interested parties who want to take him captive – or worse.

That’s as much as I can say about specifics of the plot.

That plot is labyrinthine; and as I found my way through that labyrinth I saw so many different scenes, and I realised that there were so many different aspects to this story; there were twists and turns, shocks and revelations, tragedy and comedy, high drama and quiet reflection. Some things became clear, other things remained opaque, and often it was revealed that things were not as they seemed at all.

The construction was so clever, and I loved that there were so many small details that could have slipped by unnoticed but would prove to be vitally important.

The depth and the complexity of the characterisation is extraordinary; and a cast populated by fictional characters and historical figures lived and breathed.

The world that they lived in is as well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is so a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, and I could see no flaw in it; everything felt real and everything felt right.

The use of language is wonderful, and the love of language is clear; it may be too much for some in Lymond’s verbal flourishes, but I loved them and I think that anyone with a love of words, anyone who regrets that some many lovely words in the English language are underused, would love them too.

The success or failure of this book though, rested firmly on the shoulders of its central character. Francis Crawford of Lymond could be infuriating, but he had such charisma that I had to follow his story. He is incomparable, and the nearest I can come to any sort of comparison is to say that if you can imagine that the Count of Monte Christo had not been an honest sailor but an educated, cultured player of games …

It took a little time for him to grow on me. I realised that there was a lot of back story to account for the way he chose to make his entrance, the ridiculous risks he took, the terrible antipathy between him and his elder brother; but even taking all of that into his account there were times when he struck me as juvenile and spoilt.

As the story progressed though, he seemed to become more mature, and I came to realise that his history had left him damaged and deeply troubled. His relationship with one particular woman swung me completely to his side, even though I still wasn’t entirely sure where right and wrong lay in this story.

As events unfolded I became more and more involved, and though I didn’t want the story to end I did want to know how it would end.

That this is the first book in a series gave me a clue, and how I envy those readers who found this book when it was first published who didn’t even have that one small clue.

Dorothy Dunnett played fair, but oh how clever she was. The drama kept on coming, even after a dramatic shift into a courtroom, and it was only at the very end of the book that I could stop, draw breath, and realise what an extraordinary journey this book had been.

There is so much that could be said, and I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I understand now why so many people love this series of books, have read and re-read them, have written at length.

I’d love to do the same, I wish I’d started sooner, and now it’s time I started reading the next book.

15 thoughts on “The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (1961)

  1. It’s such a coincidence that you have highlighted this book. I have had it reserved with the library for what seems like ages now (it must be very popular), on the basis of a strong recommendation by a friend who is a complete Dunnett super-fan. Really pleased to read how much you have enjoyed this too – am now looking forward even more to getting hold of the book (eventually)! 🙂


  2. I don’t think this would be for me, but I do love it when a friend finds a book that means so much to them. I hope all the other volumes live up to your expectations.


  3. I am so happy to read this post. Next to discovering Dorothy Dunnett’s books nyself, I love to see other people falling under her spell, particularly with Lymond. And you have so many wonderful books still to read!


  4. I am firmly in the “I know I’m going to love it but haven’t yet read it” camp with Dunnett right now. I keep meaning to remedy that as every review – especially this one – reaffirms my conviction that I am going to love these books. Maybe this winter…


  5. You were bang on with your first sentences. There are some books that I know I will love but I need to wait to read them at a more perfect time. The Game of Kings, I tried reading long back, but gave up after a few pages; I knew I would have loved it if I had persevered but the time just was not right. Also the edition, I think makes a difference. I think this book, needs a solid paper back or hardback and I was trying to read it online and somehow it did not fall in. But I know I will love this book once I actually get to it and your review has convinced of the same more than ever!


  6. Dorothy Dunnett was a very interesting woman. I heard her speak at the Edinburgh Book Fest years ago. There’s a vg interview with her on a YouTube in STV Off the Page series.


  7. I’ve been meaning to read these for years, but procrastinated because I am always reading a bunch of books at once and figured these would need to be read rather devotedly to get something out of the experience. Maybe in 2018 then…


  8. Thank you for this review. This series has been so long in the ‘I know I’ll love it but I haven’t read it’ category for me, combined with a feeling that there needs to be a ‘right moment’ to make a start. Your review has inspired me to move Game of Kings up to my next book to read and just make that start – I don’t think I’ll regret it!


  9. It’s lovely to see that you enjoyed this book so much – you’ve reminded me of my own feelings on discovering Dunnett and Lymond for the first time five years ago. I’m envious that you still have the rest of the series to look forward to!


  10. She;s been on my ‘I really must read this one day’ list for ages, but I’ve never taken the plunge – I’m not sure if I’ll like her or not.


  11. I did read a few of the Niccolo books a few years ago, and enjoyed them. I started Game of Kings but life moved on and I lost the thread( and the book somewhere in a House move) So, I am hoping to start on them at some point as like you I have collected them! I even lived in Hexham at one point which seems to get honourable mentions. This excellent and honest review has reminded me….


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