It took me a little while to settle into this 5th volume of the Lymond Chronicles, after the story arc that had done most to drive the last two volumes had come to a devastating conclusion. I knew that there was a story behind that story that must play out, that the big questions that underpin this whole sequence of novels had to be answered and that those two things were in all probability linked; but I needed time to adjust to such a dramatic shift, and to new directions that were intriguing but didn’t move that story forward with the same momentum that I had come to expect.
Lymond had travelled to Russia in the company of Kiaya Khátún, sometimes known as Güzel, mistress of the Harem of Dragut Rais. They took up residence in Moscow where he set about creating and training a new military force to serve the Tsar. How this came about was far from clear. I saw more than enough reasons for him: he knew that he had the ability to create a fighting force in a country that had no army to speak of; that doing that could establish something lasting of his own, with no ties to his troubled past; and that staying away from his homeland was probably the best thing to do in the light of the prophecy that him. I was less sure of her: establishing a residence and a presence in a new country, however strategically places, was surely not enough.
I have learned though, from the books that brought me to this place, that everything happens for a reason and that it usually takes times for those reasons to become clear, and so I stored that question away with others and continued to read.
It didn’t take long for me to be captivated by the story that played out in Russia.
The intrigue, and the balancing of a fictional story was real history, was as fine as anything in this series. The descriptions, the evocation of the world that Lymond entered, was as glorious as anything that had come before. And – in time – there would be enough to suggest that Lymond could not – would not – escape his past.
I loved that the world of this book was completely historical, and that every person and every thing in that world was completely and utterly of its time; so that reading really is looking through a window into the past without ever thinking that there is distance, that there is a frame …. The use of perspective is part of this with Lymond always seen through the eyes of others who have knowledge of him but not complete understanding; so that even as knowledge is gained there is always a feeling that there is more to come. That was wonderfully effective is this book, with Lymond first seen through the eyes of the men he had summoned from St Mary’s, his elite mercenary company, to train and form a new force to serve the Tsar; and then, even more effectively, through the eyes of a real historical figure, an Englishman who had come to Russia, who was both a fascinating character in this own right and maybe the man Lymond could have been had his history been less troubled.
Back in England, Phillipa was trying to uncover and untangle that history. Her scenes were a lovely reminder of the unresolved story arc that began at the very start of the first book in this series and that was a little lacking in the Russian story; a new view of familiar history to balance the less familiar Russian history; and enjoyable for their own sake because Phillipa has grown into a remarkable young woman, and while it is clear that she has learned much it is equally clear that she has many more lessons still to be learned.
Lymond had no wish to set foot on the British Isles again, but when the Tsar wishes him to accompany his first ambassador to England, and to help the English merchants who want to form a trading company in Russia, he recognised that he must do just that. There was much drama, on the journey and at the destination; certain characters who had not been seen for some time reappeared; and there were signs that some questions might be answered as I expected, but the answers to the most important questions continued to tantalise.
This was the part of the book that I enjoyed the least; and, much as I want to know what happens next, I think I need to take a break from the richness, the intensity and the elusiveness of these books before I pick up the very last one.
The ending though was fascinating. Lymond set out on a course that his friends and allies believed was fundamentally flawed. They pulled against him, he resisted; and I couldn’t help thinking that there had been a time when they wouldn’t have dared and that he would have reacted far more harshly.
That told me he has matured over the course of five books, how much everything that that happened had affected him and the people around him, and how deeply involved I have become.
When reflected on the first book on the series my overriding thought was that it was was lovely to hear the words of someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had a wonderfully rich tale to tell, talking at very great length; and that feeling has grown stronger as I have read more and more.
I don’t want this to be over, but I do want to be ready to pick up the next book ….
2 thoughts on “The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett (1971)”
I have heard such great things about this series – I am going to have to get my hands on it!
I loved this book and I appreciated the change in pace and setting after the intense drama and emotion of the previous one. I’m glad you enjoyed it once you settled into the story.
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