Book: The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Very good adventure story; first book in a series of historical novels set in Renaissance Scotland

April 5, 2011

Dorothy Dunnett

The Game of Kings

Vintage, 1997 (originally published in 1961)

ISBN: 0-679-77743-1

543 pages


The Game of Kings is the first book in Dorothy Dunnett’s six-volume “Lymond Chronicles” series of historical novels set in the high Renaissance. (A review of her “House of Niccolò” series which is set 100 years earlier and written 25 years later is here.) The book is a very good adventure story set in Ms Dunnett’s native Scotland. It is Ms Dunnett’s first novel and so it’s not surprising that her later ones are somewhat more deft and ambitious.

As the book begins, it’s August of 1547 and, pretty much as usual for the era, England is preparing to invade Scotland, this time in an effort to force Scotland’s child queen, Mary Stuart, to marry the English king, Edward VI.

Francis Crawford of Lymond, the younger son of some minor Scottish nobility and a charming, daring, dashing rogue, is the leader of an outlaw band that lives mainly in the pretty-much lawless border area between England and Scotland. Something in his past, it is hinted, has made him take up that occupation which makes him hated equally by the Scots and the English. But of course there is more to it than that. And it isn’t a coincidence that the English forces will have to travel through the area in which Francis finds himself most at home. The book is an excellent and occasionally hilarious adventure story.

There are more than passing similarities to the “House of Niccolò” series here. Francis is at the head of an ensemble of characters, he is fond of music and acting, and he is almost always able to think a step or two ahead of the other characters. He is also nearly as much of a plot device as he is a believable character. All of that is also true of Nicholas van der Poele, the main character in the other series. What distinguishes both series from most adventure stories is that there are strong women characters in them and that most of the characters’ motivations are driven by relationships.

There’s a talky bit of exposition near the end, but it’s handled better than talky bits of exposition are in most novels. I’m looking forward to the adventure in the other five books.