Tuesday, September 11, 2012

100 Books #86 - Dorothy Dunnett's THE GAME OF KINGS

Dorothy Dunnett is absolutely the female Bernard Cornwell. Or rather, more temporally accurately, Bernard Cornwell is the male Dorothy Dunnett, since her career as a writer of historical fiction predates his by many years. But anyway, you get my point.

The Game of Kings is Dunnett's first novel of the Lymond Chronicles, which take place in one of the most fascinating periods in European history, the 16th Century. We do not get to see Henry VIII or Francis le Grand Nez, but we do get to see their descendants and relations jockeying for power all over Europe -- but not directly. Oh, a crowned head or aspirant to a crown might turn up here and there for a scene or two, but Dunnett, and by extension we, are more interested in the people immediately below them, the lords and ladies and functionaries and footsoldiers whose lives get warped and changed by the royal/imperial/papal knightly/papal intrigues. And one of these in particular.

Francis Crawford of Lymond is the younger son of a member of the Scottish nobility whose roguish tendencies are so over the top as to be entirely worthy, to judge from this first book, of the six novels Dunnett has devoted to him. In The Game of Kings his sphere of labor is Scotland alone during the time of England's very aggressive campaign to woo/abduct the four-year-old Mary Queen of Scots as a wife for the nine-year-old Edward VI of England -- a campaign which we all know was unsuccessful but maybe not the details of how and why it was so. At least I didn't know much about that, to my shame. Since remedied!

This war is only a backdrop to a dizzying array of plots, conspiracies and mysteries centered on this Lymond character, who isn't even supposed to be in Scotland, so naughty has he been in the past. Oh, he is a fascinating character, dazzlingly well-spoken, crafty, dissembling, mysterious -- in short, the last sort of person you want to be sitting across from at a chess board, unless you just want to watch yourself lose spectacularly in the hopes of gaining some instruction. I am that sort of person, a terrible chess player who can't resist the game's allure nonetheless, and a worse fibber.*

So naturally I love a good rogue, though Lymond sometimes plays rather rougher than I usually like. Isn't that always the way? But Lymond seems to play roughest of all with his allies, as happens early on in The Game of Kings, when he manipulates a new team member into betraying himself as untrustworthy, but does so in such a way that, well, here --

So there it was. First, corporal punishment, carefully applied. Next, spiritual chastisement -- and not the obvious open ridicule. Not with Lymond. Instead, the dreadful humiliation of accepting his own reputation, intact, from the chastising hand. That, and the corollary that Lymond found him so incosiderable that he could cheerfully add to his stature.
Furthermore, part of the humiliation is being rescued by Lymond himself in hilarious fashion, with Lymond disguised as a ridiculous Spanish grandee and all but rolling his eyes and twirling his mustaches as he makes off with his erring teammate, the goods said teammate stole, plus some extra horses the "grandee" has wheedled the teammate's victim into supplying -- hey, they no longer have food for those horses anyway, thanks to Lymond's team. Ho ho!

So yes, Lymond is a character in a million, but he is not the only one. Oh no. There is the "wittily obese" professional prisoner-of-war Jonathan Crouch, who is traded around like "a promissary note on two legs" and who drives his captors/purchasers/hosts crazy with long-winded stories and recollections that go nowhere. There is the Lady Christian, blind but exercising superhuman acumen with her other four senses, whip-smart and managing, despite her sex and station, to involve herself fully in the novel's intrigues. There is Lymond's brother, Richard Lord Culter, the good, boring one who is constantly outshone by Lymond's entertaining but sometimes deadly antics. There are those amazing biddies, Richard's and Lymond's mother, Sybilla, the Dowager Lady Culter, who is a Wodehousian/Wildean Aunt centuries before her time, as is the Dowager Lady Hunter, ruling a world from her sickbed. There is a holy terror of a 13-year-old heiress, Lady Agnes, whose dreams of romance and chivalry wind up thickening the plot more than I would have thought possible. And there is a host of other nobles and their hangers-on, Scottish and English, who spend a lot of the novel trying to figure out whose side Lymond is on, if he's on any at all -- and we, the readers don't know either! Even after we've decoded a key signifier regarding identity in this novel, we still don't know.** That's masterful.

But lest we think it's all politics and plotting -- it's not. For one thing, the single greatest literary sword fight I have ever read takes place in this volume, and is followed by one of the most desperate chases.

By the way, I'm totally awarding myself bonus points for almost being able to read this novel without thinking of Lord Flashheart every single page. It was more like every other page. But come on! Even the eye color is about right for Lymond!

Though, to be fair, let's say Lymond is half Lord Flashheart, half Evil Prince Ludwig from the "Chains" Episode of Blackadder the Second. But, you know, Scottish.

*I do not claim to be a poor liar in that people can see through my lies -- I'm actually quite good at that, coming from a long line of bullshitters. It's the coming up with the fibs that eludes me. I'm not quick enough. The pause during which I might come up with a whopper is just a hair too long and gives me away, even though I've schooled myself against all the classic tells. Possibly because I've schooled myself? I don't know. Anyway, I suck at it.

**At least I didn't, not entirely, not until the last ten percent or so of the book, largely taken up with a big trial scene which, while satisfyingly clarifying all of the lingering narrative questions posed within the novel, is really kind of a dreary info-dump. Though within it, I learned about something I'd never really considered before. And that always makes me happy. And now I want to read this.

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