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King Hereafter

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Dorothy Dunnett

   With the same meticulous scholarship and narrative legerdemain she brought to her hugely popular Lymond Chronicles, our foremost historical novelist travels further into the past. In King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett's stage is the wild, … see full wiki

Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Vintage
Date Published: September 29, 1998
1 review about King Hereafter

A Mixed Bag . . . But Decently Done

  • Jun 22, 2002
  • by
Based on the tale of Earl Thorfinn Sigurdsson of Orkney, as found in the Orkneyinga Saga, the man who some scholars take for the historical Macbeth, Lady Dorothy Dunnett has here reimagined the life and times of that famous Scottish king. Three parts Celt and one part Norse, this Orkney earl extended the domain bequeathed him by his viking forebears (the Orkney Islands as well as some northern coastal territory on the Scottish mainland) deep into that land that would one day be Scotland, establishing, for all intents and purposes, the first unified Scottish kingdom.

Though his kingdom was not to last, Thorfinn-Macbeth is portrayed as a magnificent visionary who grows from a somewhat reckless, albeit coldly clever and scheming, viking chieftain into a true king, genuinely concerned for the wealth and weal of his newly won kingdom. The tale, itself, is not highly structured but affects to recreate the life of this marauder cum royal prince from his first heedless days in the shadow of Norway's King Olaf the Stout and Denmark's Canute the Great (who briefly carved out an Atlantic empire for himself incorporating England, Denmark and, in the end, Norway), to his final days in the shadow of Harold Godwinsson, William of Normandy and Harald Hardrada, the last genuine viking king of Norway.

Following the life and career of the Orkney earl, Thorfinn, Dunnett creates a very different Macbeth from the man Shakespeare gave us. This Macbeth, an ungainly and ugly looking fellow, is head and shoulders above his fellows both physically and intellectually. More, he is, at bottom, a sensitive soul who, though his first introduction to his future wife, after killing her husband in battle, is barely more than rape, grows to love her as she comes to love him. Their joint career takes them headlong into rule of the future Scottish kingdom with some fascinating detours along the way including the tale of Thorfinn's struggles with the magnificent Rognvald Brusasson, his golden haired nephew (Ms. Dunnett offers a most unusual interpretation of the relationship which led to the famous burning of the earl's house) and engagement in the political maneuvering then going on in the south of England in light of Canute's early death without a strong heir to succeed him.

Although this novel had long barren stretches (I especially found the interlude on the European mainland, as Thorfinn made his way to Rome, frustratingly tiresome and longwinded), the book, on balance, was intelligently done. If it moved too slowly in places, it largely made up for it with well-wrought scenes of battle on the seas and deep in Scotland itself and with some fascinating dialogue. Regrettably, Ms. Dunnett does have a tendency to resort to a kind of cryptic rendering of both dialogue and description, which overdoes the subtlety I think she was pursuing. And I found too many of her characters rather difficult to distinguish from one another. Occasionally, too, she slips into a surprising error such as a description of the Byzantines in which she refers to the Ottoman crown (which, of course, is a major anachronism since the Ottomans didn't conquer Constantinople until 1453 while her tale takes place in the eleventh century). More, she goes on too long in places since I found her repeating herself rather too often, adding an unneeded burden to this already very large novel.

But, if it is not the best of its type (and I am reminded here of Hope Muntz' historical novel, THE GOLDEN WARRIOR, about many of the same characters in roughly the same time period which, perhaps, really is), this one is certainly a good one and worth the attention of intelligent readers attracted to historical fiction, especially when set in this time period and this corner of the world.

author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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