I come bearing glad tidings, for the Lymond Chronicles have finally been republished and the library now has a complete set available to borrow.
This means I can finally recommend them with a clear conscience, starting with The Game of Kings -- first in a series featuring the sneaky and erudite 15th century Scottish Francis Crawford of Lymond and lots of humour, sheep-stealing, and a bunch of historical references I'm too uneducated to understand.
During the course of the series the reader is taken to England, France, Malta, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, Dunnett's writing and incredible depth of research transporting you with ease to each location. Her characters, too, are well-drawn and sympathetic, particularly my favourites Kate Somerville and her pragmatic daughter Philippa:
"There are twenty thousand men, women and children in the bagnios of Algiers alone. I am not going to make it twenty thousand and one because your mother didn't allow you to keep rabbits, or whatever is at the root of your unshakable fixation."
"I had weasels instead," said Philippa shortly.
"Good God," said Lymond, looking at her. "That explains a lot."
Lymond himself has been compared to other clever/ridiculous heroes such as Peter Wimsey and Athos, and I'd add Howl from Howl's Moving Castle to that list. He has influenced writers from Marie Brennan, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ellen Kushner and Max Gladstone to Kim Stanley Robinson -- all, now that I think about it, either fantasy or science fiction writers. Perhaps it's the detailed sense of history and place that Dunnett evokes that makes it resonate with creators of other worlds.
Much as I love this series, its writing takes no prisoners and often leaves first-time readers baffled and confused within the first hundred pages. They're not light reads by any means, although they are often fun, and going in you just have to accept that there is a lot going on that you won't understand -- unless you speak five languages and are deeply familiar with the literature and politics of the time period, in which case I salute you. (Or if you can't but still want to understand, grab a copy of The Dorothy Dunnett Companion which attempts to explain the myriad references that the author drops carelessly every second paragraph.)
But if you do persevere (which I recommend you do), you'll have six ridiculous, funny, clever, heartbreaking books to read ahead of you. I mean, it has lines like this:
“And the English army, wheeling, started south at a gallop over the hill pass into Ettrick, followed by twenty men and eight hundred sheep in steel helmets.”
Who wouldn't want to read that?