Which is to say, I am not fond of it, but fandom will fucking love this thing.
A GAME OF KINGS is a historical novel set in 1540s Scotland. If I had to describe the novel in one word, it would be "fraught." Emotion is always bubbling below the surface in these Scots, until you just want them to go to bed together or fight so they'll at least shut up. They do sometimes fight, but mostly it's characters being FRAUGHT at one another; antihero Lymond, for example, is FRAUGHT by himself, and Lymond's sidekick is all FRAUGHT over Lymond, and then Lymond's brother Richard shows up and he and Lymond are FRAUGHT at each other, and then Richard goes home and is FRAUGHT with his wife, and so on. It reminded me, in short, of SMALLVILLE. That endless series of Lex-and-Clark-in-a-room-scenes, where they're being all upset because they can't have an honest conversation? If you liked those, you will love Dorothy Dunnett's A GAME OF KINGS, because it seems like pretty much every chapter has one character or another having an emotionally intense pose-off with somebody else. And pose-off is the operative word, because very few of these emotional confrontations actually accomplish anything. Dunnett manages the waves of emotion very well, but once the characters are done bobbling about you see that most of the time they're pretty much in the same kiddy pool they started out in. She keeps getting characters into fraught confrontations, and then doing her level best to get them out unscathed and essentially unchanged so they can have more fraught confrontations later.
If you are into what people are feeling, this is your book. If, like me, you're into characters doing things, you will be bored or annoyed for big chunks of it. Dunnett does something with Lymond that's interesting as a writing exercise, but sort of falls flat for me: Lymond has no clear objective for much of the book, until his actions are retroactively explained towards the end. This means that every time he shows up, his actions appear essentially purposeless, as if the author were announcing, "and now the book will stop while Lymond is sexy for a chapter." The reader is supposed to fall in love with the romance of this, but the lack of objective undercuts the romance, because deprived of purpose Lymond's derring-do comes off as cheap attention-seeking antics. For much of the book he might as well be a sword-wielding troll broken-hearted at being born four hundred and fifty years too early for the internet.
This renders Lymond exactly the sort of character that fandom loves and that I hate.
The book gets more interesting when it plays up Lymond's conflict with his brother Richard, who is the other male lead and who is, yes, fraught. But Richard is way more interesting than Lymond. Richard has responsibilities. Richard has a marriage. Richard has plans for the future. And Richard has deliberately put all of these in jeopardy, because that's the kind of person Richard is. Richard, in short, *has to make choices.* And he fails them, usually, because he's deeply flawed. But of the two, Richard is the only one who has character development of any description, wherein something happens to him and he reacts and changes, or fails to, accordingly.
And it's not only Richard; pretty much everybody else in the story has more going on, character-wise, than Lymond does. I think it says something that I was more entertained by a description of Lymond's brother waking up a drunken glovemaker than by *anything Lymond does in the whole book.* And Dunnett is an extremely organized, smart, and careful writer, so she's not making clumsy missteps here. It's by design. She keeps us in the dark about Lymond's motives and angles because we're meant to fall in love with the image he presents before she shows what's behind it. To me, though, that renders Lymond a meaningless showoff. And I don't care about the showoffs; I care about the people doing the hard work so the showoffs have something to prance around in front of.
The oddest thing about Dunnett's design is that it produces a remarkably fannish result. At first A GAME OF KINGS is dedicated to having Lymond being a Magnificent Bastard who has romantic adventures and is sexily evil, but then it switches gears and becomes dedicated to revealing the myriad ways in which Lymond is really a Great Big Misunderstood Woobie who really didn't do anything too terribly bad really. It's as if the novel becomes fanfic of itself.
I really don't like A GAME OF KINGS much. But I understand why a lot of people love it.
Originally posted on my DW. | people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.