Dunnett just throws readers into this entirely new and alien world of 11th-century Scotland without much in the way of help. There are some maps and some complex family trees, but most of these make little sense before you’ve read a good chunk of the book.
When I think of the great historical fiction novelists, the first name to come to my mind is Dorothy Dunnett. Jenny first introduced me to Dunnett more than 10 years ago, when she urged me to read the Lymond Chronicles, Dunnett’s marvelous 6-volume series about the fictional 16-century Scottish nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond. Within 5 years of that first introduction, I had devoured the Lymond books and the even more compelling 8-novel prequel series, the House of Niccolò. But the novel that stands above them all is her one standalone historical novel, King Hereafter, which I just finished reading for the second time.
King Hereafter is the story of Macbeth, king of Alba. That’s right, Macbeth of the three witches, Birnam Wood, and “Is this a dagger I see before me?” Except that Dunnett’s version of this man has very little in common with Shakespeare’s ambitious murderer.
Dunnett’s version of this 11th-century king is actually the same man as Thorfinn, the Earl of Orkney. I know next to nothing about the history of this period, but I understand that she arrived at this conclusion after doing extensive research into the period. I can’t speak to the likelihood of her being correct, but I can tell you that her version of the man is an exciting figure whose story took my breath away when I first delved into it years ago.
From the writer:
Day 1, contract to write the first properly researched historical novel on the real Macbeth, on which there is ample academic material. (younger son then aged 11).
Day 2 (virtually), discover the academic material is mostly ancient and full of gaps, the exception being the deconstruction of Shakespeare, which is popular and has been well and accurately tackled.
Day 3, sort out which few areas have been updated, mostly in monograph form, and verify from the universities that absolutely no historical department is currently re-examining this period.
Day 4, resign myself to collecting and analysing primary material, as soon as I have read through and noted the secondaries. This included sources (including foreign ones) for info on the Celts, the Picts, the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons, on current laws and customs on marriage, fostering, bastardy, kingship, on the detailed politics of surrounding countries, on biographies of individuals such as Canute, Emma, PopeLeo, etc. etc. Also early charters, monastic annals, fragments of early poetry (plus linguistic studies), the Icelandic sagas, saints' lives, early histories written under the Stewarts, and a lot about the Norman Conquest (plus Norman and Breton charters) to identify the Normans who fled to Macbeth. Also everything relevant in archaeology.
Lovely discoveries about the Archbishop of Dol. Travel, including visits to Rome, Goslar, Vienna, Brittany, Normandy, the Celtic Library at Harvard and all relevant places in the UK, including many visits to Orkney, collecting published material and looking at buildings and museums. Compilation incidentally of 145 interlocking European family trees, laid out in miniscule writing on a piece of wallpaper 20 feet long.
Discovery that the story still didn’t make sense. Awful dawning realisation that it did make sense if Thorfinn and Macbeth were not half-brothers but the same person. Grinding of teeth (original research is not a good idea for a novelist). Decision (courtesy of my publishers) to continue researching, and in particular track to its source every accepted fact that contradicted this theory.
By the end of 1979, evident to me that the Thorfinn/Macbeth case was stronger than any other, and the investigation was now academically viable. Moment of truth; continue for ten years and exhaust all the lines of research? Take another year, and publish the case as it then stood as non-fiction? Or write, with the facts I then had, the novel I had been contracted to write in 1975? I chose to write the novel, beginning in January 1980 and finishing in March 1981 (younger son now aged nearly 17 and forgiving). The rest, as they say is history....."