Next up on my historical fiction around the world reading tour! I started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings because it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for at least a decade now. It makes sense to me to read the ones I already have on hand before I go in search of others. This paperback is 512 pages long without an intro or any collateral information attached. I’m on page 112 at the moment, so only 400 pages to go. This is a slower read than I had anticipated, but I’ll explain why in a minute. I inherited my mother-in-law’s copy after she passed in 2009. The narrator in this story is an omniscient one, knowing what each character is experiencing, thinking, feeling.
Ms. Dunnett is a Scottish author and this book is set in Scotland in 1546, when Mary Queen of Scots was 4 years old. Note that the only way I know the actually time period is not because it’s explicitly stated in the story other than by referring to the fact that Mary is 4 years old. I had to look up when she was born to know the actual date. This is a rather common theme—having to look up things—in my experience of reading this story, too.
If you look at the photo of the physical book I’m reading, you may notice that it is literally taped together. The pages are worn and hard to turn. It’s tattered to the point that as I’m reading, bits of the paper cover litters my pant legs. I do not know whether my mother-in-law bought a new or used copy of this book. But either way, it has literally been read to pieces.
I find this very curious because this story is not easy to read in some ways. My experience reading the story is a combination of intrigue and annoyance, to be honest. While I have some smattering of German language left in my memory, I am not multilingual. I know people who are, but learning other languages has not been my primary focus in life. So reading this story is a challenge because there are so many foreign words and quotes woven throughout. In fact, I read with my iPhone nearby with 3 apps at the ready: Dictionary.com, a Google Translate translation app, and a browser ready with “definition _______” on tap.
I use those three often because of the frequency of Scottish slang, or quotes in Spanish, Latin, French, etc. Each chapter also starts with a quote in Old English. Let me give you some examples so you can see what I mean.
Chapter one, entitled “Opening Gambit: Threat to a Castle,” begins with this quote:
First of ye chekker sall be mecioune maid
And syne efter of ye proper moving
Of every man in ordour to his king
And as the chekker schawis us yis forne
Richt so it maye the kinrik and the crowne,
The warld and all that is therein suthlye,
The checker may in figour signifye.
So what I interpret that to mean, given the theme of the book/series is chess moves, is something about the chess player and the moves he makes. I tried using my Oxford English Dictionary to translate but many of the words are not included in the OED. Words like mecioune, schawis, kinrik, suthley. So I have to just take the overall idea of moves associated with the king and the crown in the world of the chess game, but the exact nature I don’t understand entirely.
Then there are the inline terms such as:
Oriflamme – “gold flame”; The sacred banner of St. Denis, a banderole of two or three points of red or orange-red silk, attached to a lance
Rieving and ruttery – “that robs or reaves” and “lust, lechery”
Yelling bills and bows – Calling for individual archers (bow and arrow) and crossbows to come to a fight
Kist – a small chest for holding valuables
“Se’l ser un si, scrivero’n rima; Se’l ser un no, amici come prima.” – “If there is a yes, I will write in rhyme; if it’s a no, friends as before.”
“Le douxiem’ mois de l’an Que donner a mà mie? – “The twelfth month of the year, What to give grandma?”
There are many, many more, and I’m sure there will be many more to come. (Thanks to Google Translate for helping me out here!) All of this got me wondering about my mother-in-law re-reading this book so many times. Did she know what all these things meant? Did she speak or read all these languages? How did she manage to enjoy it so many times? I will confess right here and now that I picked this book up before and put it down, not having the inclination to read it with all the effort involved in trying to figure out what all these mean and feeling like it wasn’t written for a reader like me. I didn’t get rid of the book precisely because it had been loved to tatters.
I asked my husband if his mother spoke these languages and he said no, or at least he didn’t think so. I know she was well read, reading everything she could get her hands on. She loved to do crossword puzzles, too, so she knew a lot of esoteric words. After mulling this over for several days, I’ve come to the conclusion that she read the context and skipped any other unknown foreign terms and languages to glean what she could from the action and setting and dialogue she did understand. And didn’t worry about the rest of it. She obviously read this entire The Lymond Chronicles series multiple times, or had friends borrow the books and read. They are all obviously worn and tattered.
So that’s my plan going forward: to read it for the story as much as I can get from it and try not to spend so much time looking up foreign terms and quotations. But I wonder if I can skim those parts without my curiosity begging to be satisfied. I am not sure on that score!
Have you read stories written like this? How did you manage to enjoy them, if so? I’d love some tips!
Happy reading and happy holidays to all!
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Audrey Harper needs more than home and hearth to satisfy her self-worth despite being raised with the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Working as a music critic for the city newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Second World War, she’s enjoyed both financial freedom and personal satisfaction in a job well done. When she uncovers evidence of German spies working to sabotage a secret bomber plane being manufactured in her beloved city, she must choose between her sense of duty to protect her city and the urgings of her boss, her family, and her fiancé to turn over her evidence to the authorities. But when her choices lead her and her sister into danger, she is forced to risk life and limb to save her sister and bring the spies to justice.
Set against the backdrop of the flourishing musical community during the 1940s in Baltimore, Notes of Love and War weaves together the pleasure of musical performance with the dangers of espionage and spying.