Book: Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Splendid second book in a six-book series of historical novels set in Renaissance Europe

October 14, 2011

Dorothy Dunnett

Queens’ Play

Vintage, 1997 (Originally published in 1964)

ISBN: 0-679-77744-X

432 pages


Queens’ Play is the second book in Dorothy Dunnett’s six-volume “Lymond Chronicles” series of historical novels set in the high Renaissance. (A review of the first book in the series is here and a review of her “House of Niccolò” series which is set 100 years earlier and written 25 years later is here.)

As the book begins, Mary of Guise, Queen Dowager of Scotland, tells Tom Erskine, her Chief Privy Councillor, that she wants Francis Crawford of Lymond (the main character of the series) to accompany her on her upcoming visit to France. She’s going to France to see her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, who is contracted to marry the French Dauphin, Francis, and is being raised at the court of the French King, Henry II.

Crawford doesn’t much like the idea of going since he thinks that death and destruction follow him around (that’s what he gets for being the main character in a series of adventure novels). But he’s loyal to the queen and if the young queen’s life might be in danger, he’ll do what’s necessary. So he arrives in France disguised as an Irishman and there begins a series of adventures in which Crawford is almost always ahead of what everyone else is planning.

I’d have enjoyed Ms Dunnett’s “House of Niccolò” series even more if I had read this series first. She’s a trifle less ambitious here, earlier in her writing career, and it’s easier to see what she’s doing with her main character. Many of the themes that she explores in the two series are similar: the proximity of music and madness, intellectual brilliance and the self-loathing it engenders when its limitations are inevitably reached, and so on. They’re just a little easier to make sense of here where they don’t come quite as quickly.