Posted by: Sarah | May 11, 2006

Dorothy Dunnett

A few years ago I asked Jeanne Fielder, Historical Novel Society member and keen Dorothy Dunnett fan, to write for the HNS magazine Solander* an appreciation of Lady Dunnett and her two series of novels, The Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo.

Up to that point I’d never read any of the books, although I’d heard much praise and been warned that once I began to read I’d soon be hooked to the point of neglecting my family, missing meals, Christmases, birthdays etc.

Jeanne recommended that I start with King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett’s only standalone historical novel, which is about Macbeth as he may really have been (i.e. not Shakespeare’s version). I duly did so but, alas, despite the evocative settings and rich characterization, I gave up about a third of the way through, having become hopelessly bogged down in the complex plotting. In the end, I guess, I really didn’t care enough about the people to persevere and find out what happened to them all.

But a niggling feeling persisted that I hadn’t given Dunnett a fair crack of the reading whip, so I embarked on The Lymond Chronicles a couple of months ago and have now read the first two, The Game of Kings and Queens Play. I thoroughly enjoyed both. I loved being in that beautifully-imagined and totally convincing world of 16th-century Scotland, The Borders and France; loved rakish Lymond, and all those treacherous, reckless, hapless Lords and Marquises and their strong, sensible, loving women; loved the jokes and humour – and the dialogue which Dunnett gets so right for historical novels, neither too self-consciously archaic nor too jarringly modern. So few authors can bring this off nowadays; one of the best, in my opinion, is Elizabeth Chadwick.

However, I still couldn’t follow all the intricate plotting and interplotting and subplotting. although I did manage to hold on to the main plot thread in each book.

So – a couple of questions for Dunnett devotees in Blogland:

1. Am I missing something? Am I indeed alone in getting so muddled in the Dunnettian entanglements? (Be brutal – you can tell me I’m thick. I can take it. Indeed, I suspect it already.)

2. If I looked up all the literary allusions and the translations of foreign quotations in The Dorothy Dunnett Companion, would I be better able to follow the plots and plotettes? (Generally I don’t like doing this while reading a novel as it tends to jolt me out of the story.)

*Incidentally, Lady Dunnett died the day Jeanne turned in her article for Solander. A year or two later, I wrote an appreciation of the American historical novelist Howard Fast for the same organ, and guess what….! At that point I decided it was time to stand down as editor, lest Solander acquire a reputation for doing to historical novelists what Hello magazine is reputed to do to the celeb weddings it features.


  1. I have heard so many good things about the Lymond series. I am interested to hear what the Dunnett fans come up with!

  2. I not a fan (she doesn’t cover a period I’m interested in, for starters), but I wonder if it’s one of those books that’s meant to be read several times. Each time you read it, you notice a different part of the story. It could be quite satisfying in that respect. Also, I would guess that people appreciate stories in different ways. I like a relatively linear plot, and can get annoyed if sub-plots are quite strong for example.

  3. Alex, I think you’re right that there are some books that you can get something new out of each time you read them. Trouble is – so many books, so little time. I rarely read a book more than once. But I’ll probably give KH another go.

  4. I had no problems with King Hereafter once I accepted that for Dunnett, Mac Bethadh and Thorfinn of Orkney are one person. But it’s a time I’m pretty well acquainted with, and her saga-like style something I’ve come to like. Thus I didn’t find the plots and plottets complicated.

    I have the Lymond Chronicles on my TBR pile but didn’t find the time to read six books in a row yet. I read the Niccolò books some years ago and remember there were a number of unexpected twists with no former setup that sometimes threw me a bit. It can be due to her style to never be inside the heads of her characters but only show them via their actions and dialogues – it’s difficult to set up some twists that way. I suppose a second reading is due for those books.

    Btw, I have quite some subplots and plotetts in my own writing, so I’m probably less sensitive about finding them in books I read.

  5. Btw, on your sidebar, the words BookslutStephen Bowden are in one line – there’s either a < / li > tag not closed, or a < br > missing.

  6. I really liked King Hereafter, where the sparse saga style suited the characters and the setting. It’s one of my favourite books.

    I didn’t get on so well with either Lymond or Niccolo. I’ve read the first two of Lymond and the first of Niccolo, and while I did enjoy them I haven’t rushed to read the others. They’re on my TBR list, but some way down. They need a more sustained period of concentration and more mental energy than I have available right now 🙂 I’m sort of thinking that if I’m ever laid up with some kind of injury they’ll be ideal.

    I think Alex is right and they benefit from two or three readings – certainly I liked Game of Kings (GK) much more the second time I read it. (BTW, Queen’s Play the second in Lymond series, seemed more accessible).

    I don’t look up the quotations and allusions either, so I can’t answer (2). I can say I found GK easier to follow second time round, still without looking up the quotes. I have a suspicion that the quotations, especially those in non-English languages, tend to jolt me out of the story even if I don’t go and look them up (because I have to stop and try to figure out why they are important and what their significance is), and that this is why I find Lymond and Niccolo take a lot of concentration to read. Either there weren’t as many in King Hereafter, or I was more familiar with them (it’s nearer to my main sphere of interest), so they didn’t break the flow.

    Hope this is some help? I’d say overall they reward the effort, but there is quite a lot of effort required. Not books that readily lend themselves to being read in snatched moments or while you’re supposed to be doing something else 🙂

  7. You’re right, Carla, that these aren’t books you can pick up to read in odd spare moments – you need time and your wits about you, but the rewards are great. I’ve been enthralled by the third Lymond novel, The Disorderly Knights – even managed to follow the
    plot(s)and picked up some of the carefully seeded hints that one of the characters wasn’t what he seemed. The suspense was terrific and the fights and battles spellbinding.

    Consequently, I’ve launched right into the next book, Pawn in Frankincense, which according to several commenters on the HNS Yahoo discussion group, is a real winner. Dreary domestic tasks are already being neglected…what the hell.

  8. Pawn in Frankincense was the first Dorothy Dunnett I ever read, mostly because I found it in the Honesty bookshop for 50p – and I enjoyed it immensely even though there was obviously a huge, huge amount of back story I didn’t know.

    Since then, I’ve been catching up. I’m in the middle of The Unicorn Hunt, one of the Niccolo series, at the moment.

    After I’d read the first Lymond book, I went straight to Antonia Fraser’s book on Mary, Queen of Scots, and found that all the historical characters mentioned in the book were exactly where they were supposed to be in the real history – and she managed to weave a complicated plot around that as well! She must have had diagrams that covered whole walls!

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