Queen Hereafter: Dorothy Dunnett
Back in the day, when Michael and I were at Michigan State, one afternoon he came home from the campus bookstore with a load of used textbooks and a dog-eared paperback called "The Game of Kings". We were avid fiction readers no matter our time-consuming courses in science, finance and approved literature, and for the next two days, I hardly saw him, his nose buried in this book, its cover a romantic gentleman and his lady, with a castle in the background, not really his style. When he finally surfaced and staggered off to class, he thrust it in my hands and said, "Read this, I think it may be the most brilliant novel I've ever run across." That was my introduction to Dorothy Dunnett and the Lymond Chronicles. I'd like to say, "life-changing", but of course it wasn't, but it was mind-altering, and opened a window to how brilliant a writer of historical fiction could be. To this day, if the Devil appeared and offered me a deal, I'd take it in a heartbeat if it would be that I could write as well as Dorothy Dunnett, and I often imagine her on my shoulder as I write, although she's shaking her head in chagrin most of the time.
The Lymond Chronicles are a six book series that detail the exploits of Francis Crawford of Lymond, Scots nobleman of the 16th century, a dangerous man with the face of a Botticelli angel and a mind devious enough to make Machiavelli envious. The backdrops range from Scotland to Russia to Malta and many points in between, starting with the Game of Kings and ending, appropriately enough, with Checkmate. Intricate intrigue and words to match threaded through kings, queens, czars, the Knights Templar, and the tragically brilliant Scots family of Francis, as well as real historical figures -- they are the most cunningly wrought and and masterfully written novels I have ever read, and there was even a class at UC Berkeley available to dissect their workings. Ms. Dunnett, however, did not stop there.
Her next venture was the House of Niccolo, an eight book series, seen through the eyes of Nicolas vander Poele, a dyer's apprentice in a Flemish merchant household in the 15th century. Nicolas's origins are mysterious, but become revealed as the books progress. Nicolas is brilliant, and his business acumen takes us through the tangled mercantile weavings of commerce, from Bruges to Venice to Africa, as his passions and secrets unfold. There is a similarity to Francis Crawford here in the secret workings of the mind as well as the secrets he hides, but Niccolo is his own man, and this series as well is a triumph, and it's actually a prequel to the Lymond Chronicles.
I've never seen Dunnett's verbal virtuosity equaled in dialogue, characters, Byzantine plotting and sheer storytelling. Never. It is a delight, and each time I re-read her books, I discover something new and revel again in revisiting the worlds she depicts. And how she depicts: the worlds of Europe, Russia and Africa, from the courts of France to the merchants of Timbuktu, come alive in all their pageantry and splendor, in riches and in squalor, Dunnett's extraordinary ability lets us breathe it all in.
She wrote a novel of MacBeth, "King Hereafter", also brilliant, and a detective series, as well as poetry and history with her husband, Sir Alastair Bennett, and was awarded the OBE in 1992, so it seems her talents were not unobserved, but she left us in 2001. For me, however, the Lymond Chronicles are the closest to my heart -- Francis Crawford is one of those fictional characters you will never forget, that you wish could come to life and converse with for even a few moments. Every once in a while there's a rumour that the Lymond Chronicles will be made into a miniseries or a movie, but so far it's never come to pass. Perhaps too big a scope, too expensive, or just too complicated, it may be best as it is -- words that create worlds and characters ultimately left to the imagination and the enjoyment of those who read them. Anything a showrunner comes up with may be a disappointment.
Lady Dunnett has given us works to treasure forever, inspiring many a writer to produce outstanding work, but she stands alone at the pinnacle. Long live the queen and all of her courtiers -- Francis, Niccolo and MacBeth. There's no one like her, and she is without a doubt, the Queen Hereafter of historical fiction. If you read nothing else this year, read Dorothy Dunnett. It may change your world, or at least alter it. It did mine.