King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

View from this book:

Chillin’ in the Tetons, summer ’12, happily cracking open a book by one of my favorite authors of all time: Dorothy Dunnett.

The book:

I normally don’t write about re-reads here because, by the second time around, it’s too hard to capture the emotions of a first encounter with a book.  However, Dorothy Dunnett’s works are intricate enough to make each re-read surprising and enjoyable.  This is the second time I’ve read King Hereafter, a standalone book (as compared to her fabulous Lymond and Niccolò series), that combines all Dunnett’s gift for rich detail, plot twists, character development, and the re-creation of the historical worlds she has chosen.

In this particular book, our hero is Macbeth, fabled King of Scotland (whose story bears no resemblance to that of the sly and evil protagonist in The Scottish Play).  We travel to Scotland before it was known as Scotland, journeying through the Orkney Islands, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Rome in the early 1000s.  There are hints of a Norman future for England, but as of yet, the world of Northern Europe is full of Norsemen and Irishmen, of factions that have all but been erased throughout history, and of men who go a-viking in dragon-prowed longships.

The characters in this book are superbly developed, and they seem to fit right in to their historical time. (What do I know about life in Scotland 1000 years ago? Nothing. This book, however, was pretty darn convincing, and I had no trouble imagining these characters being right at home in their designated era. There’s nothing more annoying in historical fiction than plucky hero(ine)s who have strangely modern sentiments when surrounded by their bumbling, “old-fashioned” counterparts.) Nobody bumbles in this book, and nobody suddenly spouts forth on The Rights of Man in an age where brutal, short lives were the norm.

As fascinated as I always am by Dunnett’s clever wordplay, I feel that her writing got too clever for me in this book.  She wrote the Lymond Chronicles first, and they still stand as some of my all-time favorite books.  King Hereafter came next, followed by the Niccolò series, and with each passing book, Dunnett’s writing grew more and more opaque.  King Hereafter paints a wonderfully rich picture of the turmoil in the northern part of the world at the turn of the last millennium, but it cost a lot of brain power to follow the serpentine plot twists and decipher the references to long-forgotten epic poems.  I could never quite be part of the story in King Hereafter as I could in the Lymond Chronicles, and the entire time I felt like I have to admire this glittering masterpiece from a distance.  For that, I have to knock a point off a Perfect 10, but this book truly is a magnum opus.  9 out of 10.

King Hereafter

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One thought on “King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Don’t I know it about the BRAIN POWER requirement, but hopefully you seem to aquire it almost osmotically through reading her novels, and certainly by referring to Elspeth Morrison’s excellent ‘The Dorothey Dunnett Companion’- a useful concordance which covers the historical references. I live a few miles away near Chester UK, and often ponder upon Thorfinn ‘oar leaping’ on the tidal river Dee, and the historic meeting with earl leofric and his wife Godiva.
    Is that the ‘Grand Tetons’ you refer to in your blog?
    Mike BRAIN.

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