Five things fantasy authors could learn from Dorothy Dunnett

Via, a post by Marie Brennan about, as you can see from the title, things epic fantasy authors could learn from Dorothy Dunnett.

Well, yeah. Talk about epic.


Marie Brennan points out how well Dunnett used omniscient pov, and what a good choice that was for her epic historicals.

The benefit this offers to an epic fantasy writer can be demonstrated any time Dunnett has to discuss the larger board on which her pieces are moving. She can, with a few elegantly-written paragraphs, remind the reader of the political and military forces moving in France, Spain, England and Scotland—and she can do it actively, with lines like this one:

“Charles of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, fending off Islam at Prague and Lutherism in Germany and forcing recoil from the long, sticky fingers at the Vatican, cast a considering glance at heretic England.”

The plain expository version of that would be a good deal more dull, robbed of personality and movement, because it could not show you what the Holy Roman Emperor was doing: it could only tell you. To liven it up, the writer of third limited would need to make her characters have a conversation about Spanish politics, or else jump to a character who’s in a position to see such things on the ground. And that latter choice offers two pitfalls of its own: either the character in question is a nonentity, transparently employed only to get this information across, or he gets built up into a character worth following… which rapidly leads you down the primrose path of plot sprawl. (I was a longtime fan of the Wheel of Time; I know whereof I speak.)

Which is true. Although Brennan then points out the REALLY interesting thing Dunnett was doing with pov, which is: she never (fine, almost never) showed Lymond’s pov, even though he is actually the protagonist. It was the first time I had ever seen someone make a character into the primary protagonist without also making him into a pov character. The reader always sees Lymond from the outside. This allows Dunnett to conceal his motivations and thoughts from the reader as well as from the other characters. It is a technique that works extremely well.

It impressed the hell out of me, let me tell you.

I tried using that technique myself later, in fact, but that work, a long duology or maybe a trilogy, wasn’t picked up for publication. As I recall, two different editors said something on the close order of: “This is beautiful, but it’s too innovative and we don’t know if it will sell.” I have always suspected that redacting the protagonists pov probably contributed to why they felt that way. Marie Brennan’s comment on the technique is: “I wouldn’t recommend trying this nowadays; your editor would probably think you’ve lost your mind.” Why, yes, I think she could be right.

However, eventually that work will find a home or else I will self-publish it. It’s still one of my personal favorites, so leaving it in a drawer forever is not the plan. But, no rush. I have lots of other stuff coming out in the next few years.

Anyway, if you, like me, love Dunnett, you should click through and read the whole thing. If you haven’t actually tried the Lymond chronicles, well, I highly recommend ’em, but do go on past the second book. The first stands alone and is excellent by itself, but the second always felt like mere filler to me. Then the ball really gets rolling and I wouldn’t say any of the other books stand alone, so plan to go straight through to the end.


Why do you suppose Marie Brennan didn’t mention Phillipa as one of her important and impressive female characters? Because Phillipa is so young when she and Lymond first meet? I actually thought her development through the series was handled very well and quite believably. She’s a great favorite of mine — though of course I love Kate, too, and Sybilla. If you’ve read the Lymond chronicles, how did you feel about Phillipa? And about the way the romance subplot worked out through the course of the books?

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6 thoughts on “Five things fantasy authors could learn from Dorothy Dunnett”

  1. Some readers prefer the second series, House of Niccolo, so if Lymond doesn’t work for you, do try the other. The protaganist is much less flashy. He, also, is seen mostly from the outside, and is very different. Her writing style is (apparently) more plain, too. Fewer foreign language quotes. Huge cast.
    The serieses do link up with HoN preceding the Lymond ones, although written later.

    Haven’t a clue how Brennan overlooked Philippa. I have been known to shock fans by find her annoying in the ‘means well, but hasn’t a clue’ way and my first several times through PAWN I tended to skim her sections. She’s grown on me over the years, though, and the slow growth of respect and care are well handled.

    I once paid attention to Christian Stewart’s life, as shown in GoK and decided that likeable and important as she was, she was a plot device. But WHAT a plot device!

    Dunnett’s really good at highly intelligent characters, but not all of hers are.

    Lastly, a plug for Dunnett’s standalone, KING HEREAFTER, which is very dense, and best read close to reading other things set in Scotland, England and other parts of Europe in the 1000s AD, to help keep track of the characters and politics. It made much more sense to ME anyway, after I’d read around the setting and people. Main character is the guy who came down in history as MacBeth. Dunnett has him starting as Earl of Orkney and Viking.

    HILD by Griffith reminded me of it.

  2. Pippa is a little too good to be true. Kate and Sybilla are more interesting characters.

  3. I don’t know, Pete, Lymond himself is waaaaay out on the probability curve of coolness himself, so Phillipa wouldn’t be a match for him if she wasn’t a little over the top, too.

    Though I always did especially like Kate’s down-to-earth sense as a contrast to the more over the top types of characters.

  4. Phillipa fouls up a lot. The ending is only possible due to the author pulling strings – without that it would have been tragic and all her meddling would have led to it.

    And her treatment of Austin Grey, especially in the last book, was awful. Not intentionally, but it was still awful.

    I don’t think she’s too good to be true at all. And when she’s not in a mess due to emotional stuff she does have much of her mother’s common sense. As does Archie – I’m very fond of Archie.

  5. Austen Grey was so sure he was right, so sure Phillipa ought to be in love with him, and so sure Lymond was evil, I kind of see this as something he did to himself.

  6. Dogbite Williams

    I agree with Rachel. Austin’s obsessive unrequited love was an essential part of the spectacular climax.

    The Lymond Chronicales are my all-time favorite books, by far.

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