Details: (c) 1982 Dorothy Dunnett; Pub Vintage Books 1998; ISBN 0-375-70403-5
Verdict: I found King Hereafter overly didactic for my taste, but worth reading even if a little slow.
Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man raves about it.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.
King Hereafter is breathtakingly well-researched; the level of historical detail is such that it made me want to read the 'making of' version as much as the book itself. Sadly, the story doesn't quite work well enough as a story to avoid the impression that it's one those history lessons thinly disguised as stories that used to annoy me as a kid. It's partly the subject matter; politics and war are not subjects that readily fill me with enthusiasm, but it's also other technical weakness. The viewpoint jumps about all over the place, which makes it hard to engage emotionally with the story unless the characterization is exceptionally good. In fact, I didn't get any strong sense of any of the characters (which is particularly off-putting with such a large cast).
From my point of view, what's cool about KH is not the hook that the protagonist is supposed to be 'the real Macbeth'; it's the detailed portrayal of 11th century Scotland, with the religion, the internal situation, and the wider geopolitical context (including the build-up to the Norman conquest in England and the beginnings of the Holy Roman Empire on the continent). And the linguistic background! The sense of Britain as a multilingual melting pot is just incredibly vivid; the way Dunnett casually drops in words and phrases of Norse, Saxon, various kinds of Gaelic, Welsh, Northumbrian and so on almost makes up for the book's other flaws. I'm also really interested in what it's doing with religion, the portrayal of the Church becoming a political power, but not quite an absolute one yet, and the struggle for influence between various bits of the Church (ties in very interestingly with a conversation I was having with rysmiel a while back about Celtic versus Roman Christianity).
It occurred to me that KH could almost be a riff on Lord of the Rings. But where most books that are trying to be LotR take Tolkien's world more or less wholesale and throw an assorted bunch of representatives of Tolkien's races, more or less thinly disguised, into a Grand Quest, KH takes the elements of Tolkien that most imitators ignore completely. It builds a solid world with devastatingly detailed history and linguistics and makes its characters just little people who happen to be caught up in big history (while largely leaving out the fantasy aspects). Of course, this 'world' is based on reality, so it's not surprising that the setting is detailed, but most historical fiction doesn't actually foreground this much detail. I started imagining reading LotR as told from the point of view of, say, Theoden: the political future of Rohan and prosperity of his people would be the central themes, with all the grand theological stuff about the battle between good and evil and the inevitable decline of Middle Earth as a backdrop rather than being the point. I think the real weakness of KH could be couched in terms of a lack of hobbits: real, 'ordinary' people who make the bridge between grand historical themes and the reader's engagement with the story on a human level (The Silmarillion, incidentally, has exactly the same problem).
One thing that's very odd about KH is the way that love works in it. It seems to appear out of nowhere, as if a completely external force. Various kinds of love are depicted rather well, but there seems to be absolutely no reason for the people who love eachother to do so. It's fairly predictable that a book like this would want to portray Lady Macbeth in a really positive light, and does so successfully in Groa who if anything is too perfect. But while the deep, sustaining love between her and Thorfinn (Macbeth) is described very poetically and movingly, this love arises out of absolutely nowhere, after several years when Thorfinn would rape her (stated explicitly, I'm not just reading this in) and then completely ignore her for several months. And then they randomly (and very suddenly) fall in love with eachother and spend several decades in a state of ultimate marital bliss. Somewhat less inexplicably, but still rather startlingly, the Banquo character, Rognvald, develops a consuming passion for the hero on the basis of seeing him once at the age of 10 and then living in a completely separate country for the succeeding decade.
It's a pity that KH is such slow going, because it has a lot of elements which would otherwise make it very cool. I have a feeling neonchameleon would get on exceptionally well with it, but I'd be hesitant in recommending it to anyone else, I think.