The Game of Kings is the first of six novels in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. From the first words “Lymond is back,” the reader is enveloped in mid-16th century Scotland, and the story of a Scottish rogue named Francis Crawford of Lymond. Lymond’s return to Scotland is noteworthy because years ago he was tried and condemned in absentia as a traitor. Consequently, he cannot move openly in Scottish society, but runs a band of outlaws to further his own ends. What his goals and reasons for returning to Scotland are, remains a mystery for a good portion of the novel, as does his personal character. You can be forgiven for wondering if these goals simply revolve around making his family and former acquaintances as unhappy as possible, since Lymond frequently antagonizes those around him.
Dunnett has set these books during a fascinating period: the time of Mary Queen of Scotland, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Russia’s Ivan the Terrible. The Game of Kings takes place shortly after Henry VIII’s death, as England tries to seize Scotland’s throne by forcing young Mary into a betrothal with Henry’s son Edward. The Scots are trying to keep Mary out of English hands, and hoping for a betrothal with Henri II’s son instead. Consequently, there is plenty of tension between the Scots and English, and Lymond appears to be playing both sides. He is also hunted by both sides, as well as by his brother who feels personally insulted by Lymond’s actions against the family name.
There are many reasons to enjoy this story, but Lymond is the primary one. In Lymond, a scholar, soldier, and musician, Dunnett has created a character so willful, intelligent, vivid, talented, and frustrating, that many people have called him the ultimate anti-hero. It is impossible not to have a reaction to him, whether positive or negative, or both.
These books are also wonderful historical fiction, full of plot twists, intrigue, and action. Dunnett’s research is impeccable, her characters are three dimensional, and the mysteries and final resolution satisfying. She is often mentioned in the same breath as Patrick O’Brian, and is considered one of the best writers of historical fiction. However, she doesn’t cater to her readers. She throws you into a dense story, and allows you to sink or swim. There are many characters, and her main one is a polyglot who frequently quotes in other languages, without the benefit of translation. Many readers struggle through the first chapters of this novel, only to fall in love with the characters and story. After struggling through the first hundred or so pages myself, I proceeded to race through the rest of the books, mourned reaching the final page, and then promptly started rereading The Game of Kings.