I stumbled upon the brilliance of Dorothy Dunnett in the middle of the pandemic.
I had never heard of her before. Neither had I heard the name ‘Lymond’, and when someone mentioned Scotland, I thought of Nessie and Walter Scott, but mostly of Hogwarts. As a child of the 1990s, I grew up with stories about an orphan boy who was swept away from his terrible relatives to go to a boarding school in Scotland, learning magic and flying around on broomsticks. Once “all was well”, I was done with Scotland for thirteen years.
During these thirteen years, I started reading historical fiction the same way every other German does: by picking up Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and then others. Gablé. Gordon. Cornwell. Then I went to university and had other things to do than reading. Years later, Fantasy became my genre, but I started reading historical fiction again as well. And then came the pandemic, just when I had handed in my bachelor thesis, and it did two things.
It made it impossible to keep up my usual hobbies. And it gave me plenty of time to read more. As befits a 28-year-old bibliophile, I started using Goodreads to keep track of what I read – and then one day Goodreads recommended this old book to me. The Game of Kings. Well, the reviews made it sound interesting, and I had been picking up a lot of books – both nonfiction and fiction – about the Tudors. This seemed like a welcome addition, so I ordered it via my local bookstore. They told me that it would take them weeks to get the pretty edition I wanted, and I didn’t care about the long wait.
It arrived six weeks later, and because of recent events, I was not in the best of moods when I read that “Lymond is back”. By the time he had announced that he had sucked up the sea like Charybdis, I was already intrigued, and when he met Mariotta for the first time, I was grinning like a madman. Did I understand everything he said? No. Did I need to? Absolutely not. I had learned Latin at school and I had read more Greek and Roman mythology than the reasonable history student should, so I was not completely out of my depth when Lymond started talking. As a German, I had some issues with Buccleuch’s dialogue, but I still enjoyed it as much as anybody can. The detail, the depth, the incredible prose.
Within three days, I finished the first book, officially declared it to be my new all-time favourite, and then threw a tantrum because I had to wait for Queen’s Play for so long. It arrived soon, and once again I devoured the entire book within three days. And then came The Disorderly Knights and Sir Graham Reid Malett. My obsession reached a new level. By the time I finished the book, I was ready to erect Dorothy Dunnett shrines all over the countryside, and I was ready to die for Scotland. And then came the next one, and the Chess Scene, and it shocked me like no other book had ever before. I had read George R. R. Martin’s ingenious A Storm of Swords, but never something like this.
I decided to take a break. There were only two books left, after all, and I wanted to savor their excellence as much as possible. The Ringed Castle was the only Dunnett I did not give the full five out of five stars on Goodreads. But I still appreciated it so much for what it did… and then came Checkmate. The last book. Long before, in early September, I had decided that this would be my Christmas read. A special book for a special occasion.
It blew my mind. It completely, irrevocably, blew my mind. I had no words to express what I felt while reading this book. I had never cared for any fictional characters as much as I did for these, and the tragedy and the stakes affected me so much that I had constant goosebumps and was unable to communicate with anyone during the three days I spent reading it. There was just the book and me, and it made me cry at least three times. The brilliance and the tragedy, the depth and the comedy, all of it coming together, culminating in this unparalleled masterpiece. Once I was done, my heart was in shambles.
Whenever I come across the word ‘Engedi’, I start crying like a little child. I will reread the first book this June with friends, this time with the Companion, and I cannot wait. No piece of writing comes close. Well, almost none. That House of Niccolò series is pretty good as well.