Historical Fiction Review: ‘The Game of Kings’ by Dorothy Dunnett

Oh Lymond, you wascally wabbit.  I see you for what you are, a grown man in sixteen century Scotland who thinks he is living Looney Tunes.  Your life is a series of mini adventures, getting captured by a range of not real scary opponents.  There is never an instance when it is not appropriate to taunt the opposition mercilessly, showing off the fact you are the smartest man in the room with your wit.  You will always get captured, and you will always escape.  Your skills are better than everyone else, your wit never fails, and all the ladies love you.  Wait, did Bugs Bunny ever have a lady friend?

To give a synopsis would give away the plot.  Frances Crawford of Lymond, usually known only as Lymond or The Master, is knee deep in the politics of sixteen century Scotland.  Living as an outlaw he still has contacts with the major players of the game.  Along the way the reader is shown several real life figures of the time, most notably young Mary (queen of Scots).  Knowledge of the period however is not required; I personally know nothing about Scottish history.

I picked up ‘The Game of Kings’ due to some comparisons being made to GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, specifically in the politicking and complex plots.  Many of the recommendations also came with a warning that the first half of the book is a real chore to get through.  When it came to the ASOIAF comparisons I must admit, I didn’t really see it (maybe it comes later in the series?).  The first half of the book being a chore however was very, very true.  Really I was starting to think I was just not going to understand the overarching plot all the way to about the 2/3 mark.  And then something clicked and suddenly I am racing through the end, staying up late to finish a book I am suddenly addicted to.

I am not really kidding about the Looney Tunes style plot, the early parts of the book feels more like a series of shorts involving the adventures of Lymond and his merry band.  In each case he dresses someone down completely with fiery wit and extreme intellect; often in two or three languages.  In every case he is two or three steps ahead of the opponent; even when captured escape is inevitable.  As a reader we are thrown in with very little background.  Lymond is an outlaw reaping havoc with the nobles of Scotland.  It really isn’t too much of a spoiler to say there is more to the man who meets the eye, and eventually the multiple shorts are tied to a much more coherent picture.  And when this happens Lymond’s role becomes crucial to his home country.

I am of two minds here.  There is no doubt Lymond was incredibly engaging as a character.  Dunnett obviously has the intelligence to write a “genius” character; the dialog between Lymond and his adversaries was well worth the price of the book.  And once the plot lines started tying together the book was almost impossible to put down.  I also enjoy historical fiction that keeps from name dropping huge names and placing them in improbable situations.

But I wonder if the dense beginning needed to be such a tough start.  I know in a different mood this book would have been put on a ‘did not finish” pile, never to be seen again after a hundred pages.  It makes it hard to recommend without reservations; “keep reading it gets better” is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

On the other hand, how can a fault a book for doing something too intelligently?  It is not the author’s fault that we are not all polyglots, or that not all of us recognize names from Scottish history.  At one point I found myself thinking “I need a map,” like I don’t have instant access to maps of the entire country at my figure tips.

When all is said and done (a phrase I have GOT to stop using in reviews) I have to admire the complex portrait, and take the strong ending into account more than my confusion at the beginning.  I think to myself, do I want to read the next one?  I think to myself, yes , I really do.  And that makes me think I am out-thinking myself; just recognize a good book when it is in front of you.

4 stars.  Not bad for a book that took me so long to get into.

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