Friday, April 22, 2011

Back into Dorothy Dunnett's clutches!

I spent a fair amount of time in this space last year raving about Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels about late medieval and early modern Europe. The five thousand-plus pages of her eight-book House of Niccolo series were easily the most transporting and memorable reading I did last year; five months after closing the final volume, I still find myself calling scenes and characters to mind with startling regularity.

Regular readers will know that I'm an enthusiastic recommender of books I like. Really, what other reason is there for having a blog? Dunnett, however, I always recommend with a grain of salt. Her books definitely aren't to every taste: not everyone likes (or trusts) historical fiction, let alone historical fiction whose primary narrative techniques are obliqueness and temporary confusion--and that expects from the reader a close attention and eye for detail more common to poetry . . . and that over thousands of pages. But if you do find her to your liking, oh, the rewards! Book after gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, exhilarating book!

I recently dove into Dunnett's other--her first, actually--big series, the Lymond Chronicles. I'd heard that the two series are different enough that readers tend to have a distinct favorite, and I can see after just one book that Niccolo won't be displaced in my heart. The Lymond books carry the familiarity of an old friend, but they are more deliberately allusive and complicated in their language even as their characters and psychology are less acutely presented. Still, the first book, The Game of Kings (1961), is a marvel. It kept me rapt, and I'm confident that the second one will allow me to effortlessly while away an upcoming plane ride.

The most gripping moment in The Game of Kings is a wonderful example of Dunnett's gift for descriptions of physical activity and danger: a swordfight between brothers that runs for eight densely spaced pages--and barely leaves the reader a chance to breathe. I won't share any of the details of the battle, because it's best encountered in place, but I will share the amusing folderol that precedes it, as the formalities of combat are observed:
Erskine proffered the book again. "Richard Crawford, third Baron Culter, laying your hand on the book a second time, you must swear that you stand no otherwise appointed than by me, with a rapier and a dagger; that you have not any other pointed instrument or engine, small or great; no stone nor herb of virtue, no charm, experiment, or other enchantment by whose power you believe you may the easier overcome your adversary who here shall oppose you in his defence; and that you trust not in anything more than in God, your body, and the merits of your quarrel, so God you help."
Given the choice between a rapier and a stone or herb of virtue, I'd take my chances with the edged weapon. (Though maybe I should at least take a course of stage combat first?)


  1. I feel the same way you do about recommending DD. As much as I love her, it's definitely not for everyone's taste. I decide to risk it with a friend who's also a big reader, but it didn't work very well.

    Do you think you'd prefer that DD was widely known or to remain be among the blessed few ;)?

  2. Here via Google -- I just wanted to say that a lot of people find Book 2 difficult to get through, but the series gets better after! And once you start Book 3, make sure you have Book 4 ready.