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,
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.