I write almost exclusively fantasy and science fiction, so the fact that The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett is both a historical fiction and my very favorite series of books should say something about how highly I regard it. The books have been around since the 1960s, yet the only people I have ever met who’ve read them are my mother (who convinced me to try the first book) and the people I’ve convinced in turn. To me this is nothing short of a travesty.
The six books are set in the middle of the sixteenth century and follow Francis Crawford of Lymond. Francis (known simply as “Lymond” to all but his closest friends) is already a wanted traitor to his homeland of Scotland when he returns there intent on clearing his name as the series opens. Lymond is, in the words of the author herself, “a classical hero: a natural leader whose star-crossed career, disturbing, hilarious, dangerous, I could follow in finest detail for ten years.” He is a leader, scholar, warrior and above all, rogue. No mere Mary Sue or shallow Renaissance James Bond, Lymond is a tragically flawed man of deep feeling and a tortured past, and might be better compared to a Renaissance mix of Jaime Lannister and Rhaegar Targaryen.
The series stretches from Lymond’s home in Scotland to the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Malta to the courts of Suleiman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire and Ivan the Terrible in Russia. The breadth and depth of research Dunnett undertook to bring Renaissance Europe to life is nothing short of staggering. Lymond finds himself involved in many of the grand historical events of the time, blending so seamlessly into real history (and surrounded by so many real historical figures) that you’ll swear he must have been there.
Dunnett performs a neat narrative trick which was, for me at the time I first read the series, novel: at (virtually) no point in the series are you ever allowed inside Lymond’s head. Save for one critical scene, the POV always follows other characters. You are permitted to observe Lymond but never to inhabit him. This makes him central to the series but also keeps him at arms length from the reader, a necessary and fascinating technique to maintain Lymond’s air of mystique. It’s a technique I’ve used in my own writing since learning it from Dunnett.
Fair warning: these books are challenging reads, and the first book (The Game of Kings, referencing chess and not A Song of Ice and Fire) has the hardest prose to parse. Dunnett moderates her prose (relatively speaking) in the remaining volumes (Queen’s Play, The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle and Checkmate). But throughout the series Dunnett features quotes in other languages. Lymond is a polyglot and is not afraid to flaunt it. His use of multiple languages is not enough to disrupt your understanding of the books if you can’t translate, but it might be frustrating to those who like their prose clear and unaffected. There is an excellent companion book available for this series (and The House of Niccolo, Dunnett’s other series) that will translate the quotes for you and provide historical context, adding to the enjoyment of the diehards like myself.
The bottom lines are these. If you love action and adventure, read these books. If you love fascinating rogue heroes/anti-heroes, read these books. If you love star-crossed romance (in both senses of the word) read these books. If you love political intrigue and deeply-buried secrets, read these books. If you love worldbuilding and attention to detail, read these books. If you love to have your heart torn out of your chest, read these books. If you love soaring triumph, read these books.
If you love great books, these are the books for you.
Dorothy Dunnett sadly passed away shortly after I read this series for the first time back in 2001. But her work stands as a fitting legacy. Earlier I said that Lymond blends into history so seamlessly you’ll swear he was there. Alas, Francis Crawford didn’t exist in real life. But by the end of this series, you’ll wish he had.
As a long time fan of Dorothy Dunnett and have read all her books, and travelled ‘in the footsteps’ of her heroes, I am not surprised that some of her readers also enjoy fantasy and SF- like I do ( Tim Powers, Greg Keyes, Asimov, James Blish, Jack Vance, Frank Herbert)
I read the Lymond books way back in the 1980s and was totally hooked on them. Then I read the House of Niccolo and based a long running and very successful RPG scenario in that world.
Her research was amazing and while sometimes the books could be a bit long-winded for me, I still could not put them down and recommended them to all my RPG friends.
Wow, just wow.. took the words right out of my mouth.. I have been reading Dorothy Dunnet, beginning with ‘King Hereafter’ since the early 90’s, and I have been enthralled ever since.
So great to hear from other Dunnett fans! Thanks for commenting all!
Guy Gavriel Kay is another fantasy writer who admires and acknowledges the influence of Dorothy Dunnett.
Many Dorothy Dunnett admirers are fantasy and SF fans. In 1978 I won the “Star Trek Fan Fund” (money for the recipient to go to a con stateside). The New York SF fans were raving about “Francis” and, when I left I was given 2 books to read on the journey. One was “Star Wars – soon to be an exciting motion picture”. The other was “A Game of Kings”. I’d read the SW tie-in before we got to Heathrow (still have it – 1st paperback edition with the Ralph McQuarrie cover). But the Dunnett was a revelation. 50 pages in and I’d rung up to order the rest of the series. Still my favourite books of all time. I eventually got to meet the author at a “gathering” in Edinburgh and have signed copies of all her historical novels. I am hoping that, with the success of Hilary Mantel, the works of DD will get the recognition they deserve.
Guy Gabriel Kay has been on my radar for awhile; this only further encourages me to check out his work. Thanks Beth!
Ann, I’m very envious you got to meet Dorothy Dunnett. I will definitely check out Mantel as well, thanks.
I love seeing all the Lymond fans chime in! Glad you all enjoyed the post!