An Epic Undertaking – the Lymond Saga by Dorothy Dunnett

Dorothy Dunnett, Queens' Play

The 1991 Arrow Books edition of Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett, 1964

I’ve just finished yet another fat book, this time Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett (1964), the second in a series of six books telling the story of Francis Crawford of Lymond and published between 1961 and 1975.

Everyone I know who’s read these books is in raptures over them so I thought I’d better find out what the fuss is about. At Easter, I borrowed the first (The Game of Kings) from my mother-in-law. It took me a while to get into it as Dunnett’s style is incredibly dense and I found the Scots dialect rather hard to understand, but in the end,

Portrait Mary Stuart at the age of 13.

Portrait Mary Stuart at the age of 13. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was hooked. It is set against the Tudor world but seen from a Scottish point of view quite unfamiliar to me. England and Scotland are both ruled by children – Edward VI and Mary Queen of Scots – with powerful nobles vying to control their respectives regencies. So there’s a whole host of historical detail to grapple with for one thing. For another, you don’t know whether Lymond is hero or villain, Robin Hood figure or terrorist.He’s an outlaw, on the run, accused of terrible crimes. His own brother is utterly determined to track him down and bring him to account for dishonouring the family name. And all the while there are all these dynasties to keep track of, shifting allegiances and political shinanigans.

Yet once I got drawn into this world, got my ear in for the voices, I found it utterly compelling. There’s a sheer linguistic joy in these books, as they drip with quotations in English, Scots, Gaelic, Old French, Old Spanish – most of which go untranslated. Lymond is quick-witted and ready-tongued, his verbal dexterity hard to match.

So, on to the second then. A few years after the events of the first book, Lymond is summoned to France by Mary of Guise to protect her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, from assassination. Working under an assumed identity, he risks being exposed as a spy before he can reveal the true villains of the piece. Once again there’s a swirl of plotting and intrigue with Scots-French, Anglo-Irish, Anglo-French, Scots-Irish nobles and royalty galore. It’s hard to keep track of, and I was often far from sure what was going on. This time, though, I’d already got used to Dunnett’s style and had more of an idea what to expect. I raced through it. 603 pages in a week with two small children underfoot is no mean feat! I think I may have neglected the boys a little this afternoon in my eagerness to finish it…

Beneath all the action and romance (more in the classical sense than the Mills & Boon one), there is also the human story of Lymond himself and his interactions with the people around him. How does all that charismatic brilliance affect the people he comes into contact with? How will his experiences shape what lies ahead? Who is the real man beneath the surface glitter?

I suppose I could get the next book from the library, but somehow working through the series more slowly, depending on when I can borrow the next installment from MIL seems more in keeping with the epic nature of it all.

And as and when I get to the next one, I’ll keep you posted.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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29 Responses to An Epic Undertaking – the Lymond Saga by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Prue Batten says:

    Wonderful review of my favourite author’s work. The child neglect gets worse, trust me!

  2. Palma says:

    I’ve read the Lymond series 3 times now, a 4th may be in order! You will love the rest of the series – happy reading!

  3. simhedges says:

    Make the most of any pause between books 2 and 3, because you’ll find it very hard to pause between books 3 and 4!

  4. Kris Holtan says:

    Run, don’t walk to your computer, bookstore or library and obtain the entire series. The fi
    nal book will take your breath away!

    • Sadly, I do have to do other things with my time. 🙂 Will look forward to it though.

    • caroline mcilwaine says:

      Never a truer word! I re-read these books over and over and books 4 and 6 are un-put-downable. Absolute reading joy. (Apart, of course, from the sadness associated with certain plot directions ….) DD is a genius. I envy anyone and everyone who is reading her for the first time. Welcome to the obsession! Caroline Mc

  5. Geri Tauber says:

    Sorry to hear that you’re reading them out of order… DK and PiF are so essential to the Philippa/Lymond story line. But so glad to know you’ve discovered the best author ever!

  6. Wendy Perdue says:

    Just finished Queen’s Play for the second go round last night and started #3 this morning. No kids to worry about neglecting, only sleep! I loved the Niccoli series as much or maybe a tad more. Who ever could conceive to start a series of books with the drunken hero to be in the king’s bathtub being pulled upriver on a barge!!! Delicious

  7. Robert White says:

    Each book builds upon the previous book and the last book is simply sumptuous and brings multiple threads together like a loom weaving the most complicated tapestry. Enjoy it and remember; this series is even better on 2nd or 3rd reading….and then there is Niccolo!!!

  8. Janet says:

    Great to hear your blog stats are so high on this entry. You’ve just been Dunnett-bombed!

  9. Pat Sibley says:

    I started reading this series back in 1974 while in college, and shared the books with my mother an all my friends. Had to wait for the final book to be released and even bought it as a hardcover (while still a starving student!) just so I could finish the series. I’ve probably read it 10 times or more and every time I do, I find something new that I missed before. There is a companion book to the series that translates all of the foreign languages. You should get it; it will help you get to the “real” Lymond.

  10. Ed says:

    Buy the books. This won’t be the last time you’ll read them.

  11. Pat Redden says:

    I started this series when the first book was published and couldn’t wait for the next. Every tome a new book came out. I re-read all the previous books, so ultimately they fell apart and I could carry just a handful of pages at a time before I bought new copies! Even more fun is the single book about Macbeth, VERY different from Shakespeare’s version.

  12. Dawn Weinraub says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed everyone’s comments on my all-time favorite series (I’ve finished the second reading). Loved Niccolò very much too. These books are a “must own,” so you can make notes in the end leaves, mark pages, follow themes. Can’t wait to read the review of the rest of the books in the series.

  13. Pingback: They don’t write ‘em like this anymore! Dorothy Dunnett’s “The Game of Kings” « The History Lady

  14. Pingback: The Disorderly Knights – Lymond, Part Three « a discount ticket to everywhere

  15. Lisa says:

    I have read this series several times, starting in high school over 40 years ago . Got my Mom and sister into them also. Found the House of Nicolo a little harder going. She also wrote a series of light mysteries (Send a Fax from the Kasbah(?) as well as a series of children’s books. She and Sharon Kay Penman are my two favorite authors

  16. Pingback: Pawn in Frankincense (Lymond, Book 4) | a discount ticket to everywhere

  17. Pingback: The Ringed Castle, Lymond Book 5 | a discount ticket to everywhere

  18. Pingback: Checkmate: Conclusion of the Lymond Saga | a discount ticket to everywhere

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