Refulgent. Adjective. Literary. Shining very brightly.

It’s an unusual description, and I put it into the mouth of Kardeiz describing his brother, Loherangrin, at the beginning of The Swan Knight:

There are stories, so many stories, about the goodly company of my famous father and applauded brother. Parzival, Gral-king; Loherangrin, the Swan Knight. But you should know that there’s more to the Monsalvat clan than these glittering examples of upstanding masculinity. My fragrant mother, Condwiramurs; my patient uncle, Anfortas; mad Frimutel, my great-grandfather; even madder Titurel, great-great-grandfather. And myself, Kardeiz of Waleis, son to glorious Parzival, brother to refulgent Loherangrin. Yet who will remember Condwiramurs and Kardeiz when Parzival and Loherangrin stand with shining armour and just-ever-so-fatuous smiles before us?

My wife queried the word, not having met it before. I told her what it meant and added that I didn’t recall where I’d met the word first, but had known it for years. And, serendipity, I met the word that night re-reading The Game of Kings, first in the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett (Sphere books, 1976, p225).

book covers of the Lymond Chronicles, Dorothy Dunnett
Book covers of the Lymond Chronicles,
Dorothy Dunnett. Vintage books.

I first read the Lymond Chronicles, set in the sixteenth century with its mix of original characters and historical figures, in the late 1970s, when I was taking the London Chamber of Commerce Secretarial Certificate at Guildford County College of Technology, in my year between A levels and university. The course was not the most exciting or exacting (although I probably could have devoted a bit more attention to my shorthand skills, which are now completely non-existent), so I was more than ready for something to absorb me – and Dunnett’s series did. I read them over a period of two weeks, rushing back to the bookshop on my way home every couple of days to buy the next volume (no, I have no idea why I didn’t buy the lot at once) and, following with excitement the adventures of Francis Crawford (and probably falling just a little bit in love with him), I became a Dunnett devotee.

By the time I went to university, I’d read the Lymond series at least three times, and was overjoyed to find a fellow fan very quickly.  (He was a sword-stick-carrying, ex-gigolo archaeologist, but that’s another story.)  The Lymond Chronicles may not be the easiest of novels to get into at first – Dunnett’s prose is beautiful and sometime opaque, and the many quotations and references sometimes make the early works difficult, but it is well worth persevering. The Game of Kings introduces us to characters whom we see grow and change through the whole series and our opinion of them alters as we follow their story arcs. Alexander Fiske-Hamilton in the TLS calls Dunnett’s books ‘operatic’: there is something about the sweep of her prose and story line that makes her novels rise above most action-packed historical narratives to echo the universal themes of great opera.  It was only recently that I read the whole Dorothy L Sayers’ Wimsey series of books (and the continuations by Jill Paton Walsh) – and enjoyed the parallels of the outwardly assured, inwardly insecure figures of Peter Wimsey and Francis Crawford – writers taking this trope of the brilliant but tormented, gifted, apparently articulate and often infuriating young man and elevating him above cliché. In my own writing, I have determinedly not tried to copy Dunnett and have written with a very different narrative voice, but I’d like to think I have absorbed some of her descriptive prose and scene setting.

After Lymond, I read her fascinating novel King Hereafter, about Thorfinn-Macbeth, and the quirky detective books starring Johnson Johnson (and his bifocal glasses). When the Niccolo series came out, I was there at the bookshop, eager to buy the hardbacks, and fell in love with another Dunnett series and enigmatic lead character. I have not, however, joined the Dunnett Society through which devotees converse about all things Dunnett, but I have recommended her books to many friends and acquaintances and could happily discuss them for hours. I warmly recommend them to you, reader.

A personal note: it is especially good that I am embarking on a re-read of familiar but captivating book series, because I am just about to start on a trial at the Drug Development Unit, Royal Marsden, Sutton. It involves targeted chemotherapy and weekly ‘long days’ in hospital, made even more surreal by Covid precautions, so I will enjoy the distraction afforded by Lymond’s world and exploits.

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