Book Review: King Hereafter

01 Aug 2012

Dorothy Dunnett has been my favourite author for two years now. The first book of hers that I read (and still read again whenever I can) was ‘The Game of Kings’. I was so impressed by her wit and humour that I searched for and bought all the books she’s written. There have been 7 in the Lymond series, of which ‘The Game Of Kings’ was the first. She also wrote another series. This book ‘King Hereafter’ belongs to neither.

King Hereafter is about Macbeth - who she felt Shakespeare hadn’t done justice to. The book starts off when he is just a child and his mentor is considering abandoning him for other royal prospects. Instead, the boy impresses him so much that he pledges life-long service.

It is a hard book to read. I read it sporadically and took a little more than a year myself and everyone else I’ve lent it to has given up :). Most Dunnett books are hard to get started with. She uses languages and references that are of the time and are not immediately obvious. Perhaps that ‘flaw’ is also the reason those who do go ahead with the book enjoy it so much. Bertrand Russell says in the ‘Education and the Good Life’ that it is when an accomplishment is hard but not impossible that it is most enjoyable. This is perhaps an example :).

Spoilers ahead. Please don’t read further if you plan to read the book.


Thorkel Fostri, the mentor, trains the boy Thorfinn to adulthood. He is made aware again and again of the fact that the boy he is bringing up is not ordinary in any way. Adventures - small and large - are frequent. Most serve to educate the people involved of the character of the boy they deal with. Most become followers, 3 become friends and many more become enemies. Thorfinn or Macbeth,as he is rechristened by the English King, remains stoic through all this - concentrating on his duty as he sees it. Often his decisions make no sense to others but always seem the best option in hindsight. There are conversations in the book between friends of his that explain their incredulity that a King can rule without the help of the clergy or force. Instead, he chooses commonsense and reform.

There is romance too. He marries the widow of the man he kills. The woman, Gora, hates him in the beginning. She sees herself as a trophy wife - one used for recreation and politics only. Later as she comes to realise her husband's character - she falls in love. He too, learns to trust her as he does no one else. The conversations between them were, for me, the best parts of the book - touching, witty and very intelligent.

When you've read enough books of an author you start seeing a pattern. Most Dunnett books start with an anti-hero who you learn to first fear, then admire and finally love. Towards the end, all becomes clear and you realise how everything he did was for a good cause. One of the conversations in 'The Game of Kings' is on this very tactic. This book though is different. Because you are introduced to the protagonist when he is a little boy - you see all shades of his character and can form an opinion as you read along. Another aspect where this book differs from the others is in the ending. I'd rather not say how :). A good book. But only recommended for staunch Dunnett fans.