Dorothy Dunnett is the only author on the face of the planet who has ever made me feel abjectly inferior as a writer. Most great authors, when I read their stuff, I find myself inspired and energized and eager to tell my own stories. Dunnett? I’m not sure I’ll ever write anything that lives up to her best moments.
The worst part is, one of the most amazing scenes I think she ever wrote was in her first. bloody. novel.
It’s a work of historical fiction set in sixteenth-century Scotland called The Game of Kings (not to be confused with George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones), and contains what is quite possibly the best duel I have ever read or ever will read in my entire life. I love a good fight scene; I’ve studied fencing and karate and I did stage combat choreography in college, so I’ve put a lot of thought into this topic. When I read the duel at Flaw Valleys, it made my brain spin around like a top. Even though the scene goes straight into a chase with equally high tension and stakes, I had to put the book down and wander around my apartment in a daze for a few minutes, marveling at what I had just read.
What makes it so good? Everything. When I taught my creative writing students how to do fight scenes, I used Dunnett as a model, and discovered that every single trick I could think of, every component that makes combat in fiction interesting and vivid and tense, was in that scene. The stakes, the physical environment, just enough technical detail without being too much. The emotions. Dialogue. Changing beats. Point of view. The fight is inextricably woven into the fabric of the story; it isn’t a mere spectacle, or cheap way to simplify a conflict. Quite the contrary: what makes it so agonizingly intense is that it brings opposing forces to bear in a way that seems to have no good resolution at all. In fact, the only criticism I can make of it is that Dunnett says it lasts for about twenty minutes, which I don’t think is plausible. Apart from that, however, it’s sheer unadulterated brilliance.
And it was her first novel. Life is just not fair. But at least we all get to enjoy the result.
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. Her second Lady Trent memoir, The Tropic of Serpents, is available March 4th from Tor Books.