• Well Red

Lymond's back. And this time he's in France.

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

Title: Queens’ Play

Author: Dorothy Dunnett

First published: 1964

Edition reviewed: 2017

Publisher: Penguin Random House UK

Rating: *****

Genre: Historical fiction

Setting: France (mostly) in 1548

Difficulty: Hard

Length: 469 pages

Series: Second in the Lymond Chronicles. This book can be read as a standalone novel.

Always spoiler free – HOWEVER it is advisable not to read this review if you are currently reading The Game of Kings

Queens’ Play is not my favourite book in the Lymond Chronicles – although there is a lot to enjoy! Of all the books in the series, it’s probably the least personal which is maybe why it doesn’t rate as one of my favourites. That said, I got distracted thumbing through the book to help my thoughts on this review, and there are some truly great moments in the book. For example, there is a particularly exciting bit featuring elephants and a mahout and an incredibly well written race across the roofs of France.

This time, Lymond has been sent to France, where Mary Queen of Scots is being brought up and preparing to marry the Dauphin (heir to the French throne). Mary is in danger and Lymond is recruited to come to France to protect her. That he decides to do this incognito…is a very Lymond decision.

In the first book you aren’t clear on Lymond’s motivations and some people find him to be the villain until the very end of the novel. This time as the reader you start the novel feeling as though you’ve got more of a handle on this complex character and are fully on his side (or dare I say it…a little bit in love?!). Dunnett quickly strips away that confidence, shining a brutal light on his character.

When you first meet him in The Game of Kings, Lymond is his own Master leading his own band of outlaws and tweaking the noses of his allies and enemies alike. In Queens’ Play he is at the mercy of many meddling hands and is forced to perform in a playing field that isn’t his own choosing. This change of setting allows Dunnett to explore more facets of Lymond’s character as he’s a pawn on the chess board, not the player he strives to make himself throughout the series.

Faced with his own fallibility towards the end of the first book, in the second Lymond is pushed to and beyond his limits. He is forced to see how his actions – so clever and witty on the surface – are in fact a double-edged sword. It’s also the one book (or rather time period) where Lymond appears the most juvenile. Some of his actions are uncomfortable to the reader in a way that they weren’t in the first book, because at that point you believed him to be the villain. It makes for an interesting read, because Dunnett shows us again and again through the novel how flawed Lymond is as a character. This is a common theme throughout the series, and one I would argue isn’t completely apparent until you read the series a second time after knowing Lymond’s full journey. Like I’ve mentioned before, there are layers to this series.

Like the first novel, in fact if not more, the plot is dense and meticulous. There is mystery and intrigue, set against the sumptuous setting of the Court of Henri II of France. If you love historical fiction, you’ll love this series. Again, Dunnett is lavish with her descriptions and use of quotes (especially in other languages) so the reading can be challenging, but always worth it. Dunnett’s writing is flawless; I’m not sure I’ve ever read a series of books that is so captivating.

This book sets up some key plot lines for the rest of the series but can be read as a standalone novel. The beginning is a little confusing, but worth sticking out. There are also certain characters Lymond meets in this book that have serious repercussions throughout the rest of the series, so you need to read this book to enjoy the rest properly. With such a strong first book in the series, it’s a delight to realise that the second is just as strong.

Well Red Reviews

Would I recommend this book? YES

Favourite quote(s)?

“Lymond looked up. Superficial pain, withstood or ignored for quite a long time, had made his eyes heavy, but they were brimming with laughter. ‘Well, God,’ He said. ‘In the water, you were roaring your head off at a bloody bull elephant called Hughie.’”

“’I want your help…to trim the a bowelless devil named Francis Crawford until there’s a human place on his soul to put the mark of grace on.’”

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