Picture of author.

Dorothy Dunnett (1923–2001)

Author of The Game of Kings

35+ Works 17,096 Members 362 Reviews 149 Favorited

About the Author

Dorothy Dunnett was born on August 25, 1923 in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. She attended Gillespie's High School for Girls. After graduation she attended Edinburgh College of Art, and transferred, upon her marriage, to Glasgow School of Art. From 1940-1955, she worked for the Civil Service as a show more press officer. Her first novel, The Game of Kings, was published in the United States in 1961 and in the United Kingdom the year after. During her lifetime, she wrote over 20 books including King Hereafter, the six-part Lymond Chronicles, and the eight-part House of Niccolo series. She was also a professional portrait painter and exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1992 she was awarded the Office of the British Empire for services to literature. She died from cancer on November 9, 2001 at the age of 78. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Image credit: Photo by Alison Dunnett from DorothyDunnett.co.uk


Works by Dorothy Dunnett

The Game of Kings (1961) 2,712 copies, 86 reviews
Queens' Play (1964) 1,436 copies, 31 reviews
Niccolò Rising (1986) 1,367 copies, 35 reviews
The Disorderly Knights (1966) 1,222 copies, 24 reviews
Checkmate (1975) 1,155 copies, 19 reviews
Pawn in Frankincense (1969) 1,147 copies, 23 reviews
The Ringed Castle (1971) 1,097 copies, 14 reviews
The Spring of the Ram (1987) 856 copies, 13 reviews
King Hereafter (1982) 820 copies, 22 reviews
Race of Scorpions (1989) 756 copies, 12 reviews
Scales of Gold (1991) 716 copies, 9 reviews
The Unicorn Hunt (1993) 676 copies, 9 reviews
Caprice and Rondo (1997) 644 copies, 10 reviews
Gemini (2000) 618 copies, 12 reviews
To Lie with Lions (1995) 610 copies, 10 reviews

Associated Works

Writers on writing (2002) — Contributor — 29 copies


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Common Knowledge

Date of death
Dunfermline, Scotland, UK
Place of death
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Places of residence
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Gillespie's High School for Girls
press officer
Dunnett, Ninian (son)
Dunnett, Alastair MacTavish (husband)
Edinburgh Festival
Awards and honors
Order of the British Empire (Officer)
Short biography
According to her fan site, Dorothy Dunnett was pursuing a successful career as a professional portrait painter in the 1950s when she complained to her husband Alastair that she had run out of reading material. He suggested she write something herself. With the erudition and depth of research that was to become her trademark, she spent the next 18 months writing The Game of Kings. It was rejected by 5 British publishers before being published in the USA in 1961 and launching her writing career.




How do you review a book you’ve lived with for two months, a book you loved at first, a book that let you down? I’ll try, I’ll try ;)

The life of historical Macbeth is quite different from Shakespeare’s version, and I was excited to read a novel about him. The writing hooked me, it felt so right for the times and the characters – there was a cadence of Icelandic sagas in the background, which was lovely. I am not an expert on European history of the 11th century, so there was a lot of fascinating stuff in the book: the end of the Viking Age; the melting-pot of cultures and languages in Northern Europe; kings and queens and earls and bishops and emperors and popes. Let’s not forget the intrigues and the battles (naval battles with longships!).

I loved Thorfinn (Macbeth) and Groa his wife. The romance was cringy, to be honest-“I’m treating you abominably, because I am in love with you and I am afraid of loving you.” Sigh.
Their marriage, after”the Macbeths”learned how to relationship, was wonderfully described and made me feel for them both. (My favourite part was Groa ruling her own lands by herself, though.)

My buddy readers disliked the chapters about Thorfinn’s journey to Rome. I think that my fascination with and love for Rome helped in this case. The descriptions were beautiful, despite the political maneuvering that went on and on, chapter after chapter.

“The voices rose, and fresco and mosaic gave them back. Gold sparkled and winked through the mists of burned spices.”

“Below the liquid eyes of the Prophets, among the clear peacock wings of the angels, his men stood behind in the aisles and forgot who they were and where they came from.”

But why the disappointment?

This is a very ambitious book, with a lot of passion for history, and for Scotland’s nation-building. Unfortunately, it means that as the book went on and the author forgot about her editors (if she had them in the first place, which I doubt), there was more and more history and less and less historical fiction. In the meantime, I just wanted “a Dorothy Dunnett novel”, with characters that I would love, hate, despise, admire, root for, cry over. This is what the first four books of the Lymond Chronicles taught me to expect. Nope, it wasn't to be. The characters kept getting flatter and flatter and flatter. They were crushed by the weight of history, I suppose. Ha ha! The endless info dumps made my head swim, my eyes glazed over. I couldn’t tell all the secondary characters and historical figures apart any more.

It’s interesting that history started crushing everything after Rognvald (an amazing character, he was very Dunnett ;) ) disappeared from the book. I’m guessing that it was the end of the Viking age for the other characters, so that they could go about nation-building. This insight doesn’t help me much, the info dumps were still boring and unnecessary. It was frustrating to find flashes of brilliance in there, and imagine what this book could have been like.

The last two chapters were excellent, they made my heart ache. But now what I mostly feel is “Phew. Freedooom! Freedoooom! Freedooooom!”
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Alexandra_book_life | 21 other reviews | Mar 4, 2024 |
“Evil matters. So does love. So does pity. My pilgrim,” said Dame de Doubtance gently, “you have still three bitter lessons to learn.”

Bitter lessons indeed. This book broke my heart in too many places to count. I should not be surprised, really, Dunnett had done it before. I put the book aside for many days, because the emotional turmoil at last became too much for me to bear. I gathered my courage and dived back – and Dunnett promptly broke my heart yet again. Danse Macabre is mentioned at one point, and this is what the long, desperate quest feels like.

Oh, Lymond. There were battles of all kinds, so many yet to come. I hope that you will let love come to you. Sometimes it’s amazing how much you care for imaginary people…
“Duty, friendship, compassion I do owe to many. But love I offer to none.”
“Duty, friendship, compassion. Which moved him to die for you?”

I loved the partnership of Lymond and Jerott and tempests between them.
“Lymond grinned. “When the clay for thee was kneaded, as they say,” he remarked, “they forgot to put in common sense.”

I loved Marthe – so gifted, so angry, so damaged, so sharp, so clever, so resilient. Her scenes with Lymond at the very end are touching and harrowing at the same time. Give me more Marthe, please.
“I never expect anything,” said Marthe. “It provides a level, low-pitched existence with no disappointments.”

Philippa’s storyline requires suspension of disbelief. Somehow, I was happy to oblige. In the beginning, she does so many right things for the wrong reasons and wrong things for the right reasons, and I wanted to shake her. I ended up admiring and cheering (yes, that’s the same me who screamed “Philippa the brat!” at earlier books). What a journey, what a coming of age, what a spirit… Philippa’s storyline was the only thing that brought me small morsels of joy from time to time.

And so... five stars it is. Because of the characters (book constraints are almost too narrow for them!) - so flawed, so beautifully rendered. Because of the story arcs. Because of the power of storytelling. Because of the dialogues. Because of those turns of phrase that made me fall in love with the written word all over again, as though for the first time. Oh, am I doing this series justice? I don’t think I am.
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Alexandra_book_life | 22 other reviews | Dec 15, 2023 |
Oh, I am so happy. I am heartbroken. I’ve just run an exhausting mixture of a sprint and a marathon and collapsed after the finish line, gasping.

Dunnett is shatteringly ruthless in this book. Beloved characters die in horrible ways. The knives are invisible and they pierce you slowly, until Dunnett starts to twist. Things are not what they seem, this is not the story you think you are reading! There are clues, of course, but you gallop past them – because of the plot, because of some of the best action I’ve ever encountered on a page, because of masks so skilfully worn.

As for the characters…:

There is a maturity, a sense of responsibility, an urgency to Lymond that was missing from the first two books. I’m full of admiration, both for the character arc and the author’s skill in creating it. This is not a game any more. (Richard to Lymond: “Not for the first time, you frighten me silly.”)

I loved the chemistry between Lymond and Gabriel and Jerott. Yes, I want a slashfic, is that really too much to ask? Obviously (for those in the know), I mean Gabriel from the first half of the book, this Gabriel:
“I wish… you did not need to mock,” he said, and rested his fingertips, briefly, as once before, on Lymond’s arm. “For of all men, my God could love you; and I, too.”

Oonagh, whose storyline I hated in the previous book, managed to make me root for her and break my heart.
“Could she not teach him other comforts, though? The comfort of planning, of action; the great panacea of success. On this stricken island there was no one who knew what a leader should be like… except Oonagh O’Dwyer.”

Joleta… So much potential, so much talent that was wasted and twisted. I can’t help feeling a lot of sympathy and sorrow. It’s interesting how Dunnett crams all this convent-bred innocence down the reader’s throat – it should give you a clue, but it doesn’t.

Sibylla, you are such a joy, in so many ways, always. “The Church,” said Sibylla definitely, “should excommunicate girls who do not replace lids on sticky jars and wash their hair every day with the best towels.”

Somervilles are an awesome family. I hated Philippa the brat, and then she turned into a seed of something magnificent (I’ll see what the rest of the books bring). Well, maybe it is not that surprising, with such a mother. “… and being Kate, she had stayed, gnawing at her nails, where she was, and had left Philippa to do her growing-up without interference.”

I really wanted an epic sword fight between certain characters – as the book was drawing to a close, I grew worried. And then it happened! It *was* epic (too short, though).
The ending makes you want to grab the next book. I won’t, though, not right now. I need to breathe and come to my senses.
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Alexandra_book_life | 23 other reviews | Dec 15, 2023 |
Here we go again. Hello, Lymond. So, you are going to France? I smell intrigues, entertainment, and a great deal of heartbreak.

It is lovely and refreshing how different this novel is from The Game of Kings. The prose style is as intricate and intellectually surprising as in the first book, but lighter in architecture. The sheer compelling readability of Queen’s Play brought me joy, and my five stars reflect this; it is also an attempt to forgive the faults that are unquestionably there.

The beginning has the feel of a picaresque novel, with comic relief galore (I was having a blast). But the experienced reader of Lymond will know that there are darker undercurrents just waiting to burst forth.

We are swimming in a sea of intrigues, where nothing is what it seems. Lymond’s disguise was preposterous, unbelievable, and provocative. But it worked in this book’s universe. I was going to rant about a couple of incongruities, but then Dunnett explained those away (a shame: I had prepared a good rant). Anyway, the French Court deserves to be given the finger, and Lymond does it brilliantly.

“Then, the goal reached, he hardened his long fingers in their entrails of icing and sugar and began to twist.”

“Lymond’s behaviour, as always, went to the limits of polite usage and then hurtled off into space.” :D

My adrenaline levels were off the chart throughout. The royal hunt! Assassination attempts! The rooftop steeplechase (I loved it)! Innovative uses of circus elephants! And so on and so forth…

The darker things are becoming quite a crowd, as the plot thickens. People are used and puppeteered. People are circling each other, influencing, bruising, and changing each other in subtle and tragic ways.

Oonagh’s storyline is one of the book’s biggest faults. She is something of a Milady cliché, only without the charm and with less sense. Why is O’LiamRoe so smitten, I keep wondering? (Here is a wonderful person with a great story arc, I wish him every good thing in the world!) To be fair, she is also bound to a horrible abusive “relationship” that she justifies with her great cause. (Stockholm syndrome detected.) It is annoying in the extreme how Dunnett uses that misogynic plot device that assumes that in order to be freed/to start mending her ways a woman just needs some good time in the sack. Gaaaah.

Another fault is racial/ethnic stereotyping that rubbed me the wrong way. Piedar Dooly is a stupid asshole, but he could have been that without being “trapped in his passionate Irish soul.” Come on!

Yet, ultimately, this book is about realizing that you are responsible for other people, always. You are responsible for everyone you influence, no matter how little or how greatly.

“The issue is that Francis Crawford set out to capture the mind of this man, and having used it, dismissed it as one of his whores.”

I loved O’LiamRoe so much when he lectured Lymond:

“And that is what leadership means. It means fortifying the fainthearted and giving them the two sides of your tongue while you are at it. It means suffering weak love and schooling it till it matures. It means giving up your privacies, your follies and your leisure. It means you can love nothing and no one too much, or you are no longer a leader, you are the led.”

I feel somewhat deprived after finishing this. I know, I know, there are four more books. Still, I find it difficult to let go.
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Alexandra_book_life | 30 other reviews | Dec 15, 2023 |



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Associated Authors

Andrew Napier Narrator
Sara Eisenman Cover designer
Alun Hood Cover artist
James Marsh Cover artist
Reinhard Wagner Translator


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