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The Game of Kings (The Lymond Chronicles, #1)The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, and how I feeeeeel about this book. They demand flights of eloquence and rhetorical brilliance that I just don’t have right now. Or probably ever, if I’m honest, not for this.

It’s only the second time I’ve read this cover-to-cover. But pieces of this book are graven into me. Particular turns of phrase from scenes I’ve read over again – “I despised men who accepted their fate. I shaped mine twenty times and had it broken twenty times in my hands.” And more fundamental things. I remembered the fact of Lymond’s speech about patriotism, but not it’s chilling, blazing content. Yet when I got to it again, it rang my whole brain like a bell because it turns out I did remember, I just remembered so far down it felt like it came from me.

It’s a book with speeches, let me just repeat that.

Okay, some actual content. This is Scotland, 1547, conflict sparking with England, France circling. It’s a story of nations, but mostly it’s about the lost son coming home, about his brother’s marriage bending and bending until the cracks show, it’s about his extraordinary mother, and their friends, and a long, awful, painful coming in from the cold. I love them all so much I am helpless about it. This is a ridiculous, absurd book where the main character is incomprehensible 75% of the time if you don’t have a Ph.D. in sixteenth-century literature, and you don’t have the faintest idea what anything means for about 500 pages, and I love it as passionately and unreservedly as all its excesses demand. It's about the flaw, the break, the shattering, and building strength from personal anialation. And in the last, a humanitarianism so strong, it feels brutal.

...Nope, definitely don't have it in me.

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Gemini (The House of Niccolo, 8) Gemini by Dorothy Dunnett

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ah. You know that moment when you read the last page of a book, and you gently close it (or, uh, switch off your electronic reading device of choice) and you breathe out a long breath and you just have to sit there for five or ten minutes smiling and not thinking much, but just quietly hanging on to the last threads of it? Yeah.

So that's the Dunnett, then. These last two books aren't perfect -- Gemini, in particular, spends a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on petty politics that I just didn't care about – but man. This broke my heart in the very best way. Particularly as the last two books are all about building what I found lacking in this series previously, as compared to Lymond. Nicholas makes a home at last, and a family, and permanence, and country, and a holding center. And then at the very last, ah. Francis Crawford, there you are.


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Faced with the impossible question of what you read after the Lymond chronicles, I went for more Dunnett. Books 4-6 of the post-written prequel series, set 90 years earlier. Nicholas, firmly in command of his fortunes, has just received a pair of grievous shocks on his wedding night. The Unicorn Hunt takes him to Scotland for the first time, and from there to Egypt and back, and then to Iceland. And it takes the length of both these large books for the full scope of his response to tragedy to unfold.

Okay, the problem is, coming straight off Lymond, these books are really cold. Particularly these two, in which Nicholas's detachment reaches frightening proportions. But more than that, these books don't have a holding center. That's the point, really – that's what Nicholas is trying to build while it's what Francis Crawford inherits in Scotland and his family. But I felt the lack a lot.

They're gorgeous books though, of course. Exquisitely balanced, screamingly funny, quite painful in places. And massive points for the portrayal of an actual friendship between a man and a woman. I really know her game at this point, though, so I called over half the major plot twists. Dunnett dances along that fine line between beautifully recursive plots that circle on themselves like an intricate spiral, and just plain repetition. It definitely works, though.
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The Game of Kings, Queen's Play, The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle, Checkmate

Being a chronicle of a decade in the life of Francis Crawford, brilliant younger son of a Scottish noble family in the full flower of the sixteenth century. Soldier, spy, poet, musician, cold bastard, political thinker ahead of his time, possessed by a humanitarianism so deep it turns right back around into viciousness. The six books take us through his tumultuous twenties in Scotland, France, Malta, Turkey, Russia. He is an outlaw and an advisor to kings by turns, and he has a line of poetry for every occasion.

I plowed through all three thousand pages two weeks ago, actually, staying up until dawn more than once. It's taken me this long to write about first because of exams, and second because I needed some time to breathe a bit and stop frantically flipping through to reread favorite bits while making high-pitched squeaking noises.

I . . . oh. I have not loved books like this in . . . it's been years. The first one takes a few hundred pages, but when it hits it hits hard, and the next thing you know you're shrieking into your pillow at three in the morning. These books are hysterically funny, achingly painful, sharp enough to cut yourself on nearly every page. They work so well as a block of dense, erudite, complex machinery that they gather up their own flaws and repurpose them into brilliance. The purple prose opens up hearts otherwise left opaque by the omniscient narrator. The repeatedly slow starts transform when you're not looking into the sort of grinding tension that keeps your hands shaking through hundreds of pages. The literary references, so numerous as to be laughable in anyone else's hands, are so carefully selected as to be comprehensible even when I couldn't place the source.
Please note: the above paragraph was written in an attempt to bring coherence to the urge to go 'Francis Crawford! EEEEEE!' Success may vary.

Brilliant, complicated to the point of baroqueness, extraordinarily demanding books. Worth every second.
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First four books of the Niccolo series (there are eight in total). This is the story of Claes AKA Nicholas AKA Niccolo van der Poele and his meteoric, often painful rise from a dyer’s apprentice to one of the premier businessmen in sixteenth-century Europe. Nicholas is brilliant, hilarious, and possessed of the sort of intellect and drive that are simultaneously intoxicating and very dangerous. He is a dyer, a toymaker, a natural mathematician, a fighter, a shameless cheat, a man of complex and often alarming motivations. He forms the backbone of these books, along with his friends and lovers and enemies, and the stories sprawl out around him to take in Bruges and Turkey and Cyprus and Africa, politics and business and high social drama, hilarity and romance and terrible tragedy.

The books are simply brilliant, in the way of writing that grabs you by the throat and the brainstem equally. Dunnett’s command of history is engrossing, her prose tense and precise, her characters crackling. Her writing is impressive because it looks easy – there’s something so perfectly balanced and poised about these books, as if every word is in the right place, and there to do some work. And they certainly do work – I laughed, I gasped, I squealed, I sniffled, I groaned. I also paid extraordinary amounts of attention, because not a conversation goes by that doesn’t have at least two layers tucked slyly beneath, horrifying or funny or just illuminating. These books are quite honestly the most intellectually invigorating things I’ve read in years.

I have quibbles (hi, I’m Light, and I quibble with books). Dunnett seems to really enjoy a helping of dramatic irony, both in portraying characters who spend a great deal of time wondering and thrashing about disasters the reader already knows about, and in ducking into the heads of people who spectacularly fail to comprehend Nicholas and the tides that move around him. It’s frankly annoying, though I should also clarify this is predictably my least favorite literary device.

I was also a bit . . . overwhelmed, by the end of Scales of Gold. Dunnett has a way of punching you in the kidneys in the last four pages, and perhaps it’s that these books are the only fiction I’ve been reading for nearly two months, but by the end the twist of family and revenge and counter-revenge had been amped up to a pitch I found a bit ear-splitting. Baroque is perhaps the word I’m looking for. I couldn’t put these books down, but now I desperately need to read anything else for a long time before I go on. Which is also the sign of incredibly . . . operant literature, come to think of it.

Quite the best things I’ve read in years, no exaggeration or caveats.


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