The Lymond Chronicles (Game of Kings is the first)
Vintage Books edition
Paperback Edition (1997)
ISBN 0 679 77743 1
My first encounter with this underead series was when a friend stealthily passed it over to me during French class, to read an especially amusing passage.
“Read this section.”
“No wonder you flunk all your French tests…”
“Just read; you’ll love it.”
In this particular scene, an incongruous Spanish gentleman is applying to an English lord to help him capture a band of outlaws who have attacked his party; in the process, he manages to make a fool of himself and Lord Grey, and to put everyone thoroughly out of sorts. As it turns out, the “Spanish gentleman” is Francis Crawford of Lymond, who was posing as such to allow his men time to free a prisoner and to get away. The book was The Game of Kings, the brilliant first installment in Dorothy Dunnett’s historical fiction series.
Even without knowing the novel’s background or greater story, this passage captivated me enough to get me started on The Game of Kings. I cheerfully bought the book and opened it at the beginning, only to be left utterly lost as to what was going on. Lymond had returned to his native Scotland as a renegade, that much I understood; but as a reader I was immediately thrown into the lives of shady minor characters, intricate intrigues and obscure quotations that somehow related to the plot. Even as I continued reading, the situation did not clear up – on the contrary, Lymond became more of an enigma, as did his conversation, which consisted mostly of little known quotations, and were sometimes not even in English. Obviously, Dunnett expects a lot of her readers, not the least of which is possessing knowledge of French, Spanish, Latin, or whatever dead language she chooses to throw at the reader. After trying to get through the convoluted first chapters for a few weeks, I decided that I was not up to the challenge and put the novel down.
This did not last long, however. I was reassured by those who had read the series that, however maddening the Chronicles seemed, it was assuredly worth it. Once again, I picked up the first book and went through the introductory chapters painstakingly, struggling to figure out the plot maneuverings, the undercurrents in the scenes and the aims of the characters, and suddenly, I was hooked. My absurd degree of confusion changed into an absurd degree of enthusiasm. Yes, The Game of Kings may have immersed me without warning into the foreign world of the 16th century, but the world created is so seamless and vivid and perfect that I did not regret my newfound addiction. I fervently followed Lymond through his adventures in Scotland, then decadent France in Queen’s Play, and onto Malta and Tripoli, the Ottoman Empire and Russia, then back home throughout the series. Perusing these books was exasperating, maybe, but I would never call it a chore, because of the spell it casts while plunging me into its own heady universe. The neurotic, conniving, yet strangely charming Lymond saves it from being overwhelming, as do the countless other extraordinary characters (fictional and historic), and the magnificent tapestry of the European Renaissance. I only wondered why I had never heard of such a radiant piece of literature before. By this point, I had a tough time putting down the Chronicles during French class, too.
Just as fascinating as reading the Lymond Chronicles is discussing it later with other readers; in fact, it is an essential part of the series. There is so much going on between the members of the cast, so much that is implied but not stated, and so many mysteries left for the reader, that one could spend a lifetime perusing and re-perusing the Chronicles and still not have the whole completely mastered. That is why fans of the series so ardently find each other and passionately thrash out the machinations of the novels, whether through informal meetings or conventions or online forums. That is why devouring the Lymond Chronicles is my most memorable reading experience of the last decade: because reading about the spectacular goings-on of the Renaissance, and reading about Lymond’s troubled yet alluring existence, is complementary to conversing about them with bibliophiles who share your fixation. That is why it is such an extraordinary set of novels: because each time you open them anew, there is yet another verdant vista waiting to be explored.