Reviewed by David Maclaine
Have you ever read a book that seemed to be written just for you? King Hereafter felt that way to me. Dorothy Dunnett’s rich and complex novel is based on the idea that the somewhat shadowy historical King Macbeth of Scotland was really the same man as Earl Thorfinn the Mighty of Orkney and Caithness. If your response to that second name is “Who?” you may become frustrated before the novel reaches one of the most heartbreaking conclusions of any book of any kind that I have ever read. The huge cast of characters may be daunting unless you've spent the last decade as I have, immersed in the assorted chronicles, sagas, biographies and histories that tell what we know about the middle decades of the eleventh century, and are familiar with figures like Finn Arnason, his wife Bergljot and daughter Ingibjorg, Queen Emma of Normandy, Earls Uhtred and Siward of Northumbria, Godiva and Leofric of Mercia and their son Alfgar. Many, many more of a huge cast of characters sail across the pages of this novel, their deeds weaving a complex pattern of events. Dunnett’s hero, Thorfinn-Macbeth, shows all the instincts of a great poker player, needed to stay alive in an age when men swooped down to burn one another in their halls, and an unsuspected shift in allegiance could turn victory to disaster.
King Hereafter offers other challenges besides the task of following its extensive cast. Dunnett’s writing is allusive rather than direct; readers who like thoughts and actions to be clearly spelled out, rather than hinted at and left to be deciphered, may find the effort to follow the characters' motives and schemes too great. For me the novel is simply a masterpiece, with rich description, brilliant, subtle characterization, and all the high drama I could wish. With my sympathy snared by the slow-growing love of Macbeth and his lady, the approach of his inevitable end moved me as deeply as the downfall of any hero ever has. (1982, 721 pages)More about King Hereafter at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository