Pawn in Frankincence by Dorothy Dunnett (1969)

May I consider this fourth of the six books that make up Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles to be the beginning of the second of two acts?

I ask because the last book finished on a cliffhanger, and because I see parallels between this book and the very first book in the sequence.

They are both stories of quests, but his time the field of play is much wider and the stakes are much, much higher.

The narrative moves across Europe and North Africa; beginning with a remarkable scene in Switzerland where much is not as it seems, and then on to France, Algiers, Djerba, and finally the grand and great city Constantinople, where scenes played out that left me emotionally drained,utterly lost for words and desperate to know what would happen next.

The journey through this series of book is for the faint-hearted; but for those prepared to commit time, heart and intellect, they are richly, richly rewarding.

The quest in the first book was to find justice and the right place in the world; while the quest in this book is to find an infant, hidden away far from the place he should know as home, and in the power of a ruthless, devious and very clever enemy.

I’m trying not to say too much for anyone further back in the series or contemplating reading in the future, but I really can’t write about this book without referring to particular names and situations.

The ostensible reason for Lymond’s journey is to deliver a gift from the King of France to the Sultan in Constntinople; but the deeper reason is to rescue the child – complicated by the fact that there are two children, one his and one his enemy’s, and that he has no way to tell them apart – and to destroy that enemy.

The travelling party includes Philippa Somerville, who is set on looking after the child; Archie Abernathy; Jerrott Blyth, from the company formed at St, Mary’s; the maker of the spinet and the young woman who is his apprentice. Along the way the party will fracture, shining a different light on to familiar characters and illuminating new ones.

I knew that many readers love Philippa Somerville, and in this book I thought that she came into her own as a principled and strong-willed young woman, and I found that I loved her too. Jerrott Blyth became a complex character with a life and a story of his own, moving forward from the shadows in the last book. I came to love Archie Abernathy, and I wished I could spend more time with him and learn more of his back-story. I can’t help feeling there are volumes and volumes of history and biography that I would so loved to read that Dorothy Dunnett distilled to create her books.

There are some exceptional women in this series of books, and the young woman apprentice is as exceptional as any of them. I can’t say that I liked her, but I was intrigued by her and it was clear that she was significant for the thread that has been running throughout this series of books: the mystery surrounding the Crawford family and the possibility that a greater power than the enemy being sought is weaving an elaborate plot around Lymond.

I found a great deal to think about, I found a wealth of wonderful plot twists, some of which I saw coming but many of which I did not. I was pleased with some of the things I spotted, but I suspect that I am being cleverly managed by the author. When I read the first book in this series I wrote that it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, and that still holds true.

The evocation of places, of events, of cultures, continues to be vivid, deep and complex,

The thing that made this book distinctive for me was the use of perspective – most of the story is told from the perspective of Philippa Somerville or Jerrott Blyth. That illuminated their characters, and it also held Lymond at a distance so that much of his character remains in shadow.

I could see that he had matured since the earlier books, that he took responsibility for his companions in a way that he hadn’t often before, and he had no ready answer when he was asked if the object of his quest justified the price that he and others were paying. The price that he paid was highest of all, and the choice that he was forced to make in the grand set- piece of this book – a live game of chess – was utterly devastating.

The story went on a little too long for me after that, but I understood that there had to be a return journey, that pieces had to be put on place for the next book.

The consequences of what Lymond went through in this book – and of what he and others learned – have still to play out.

One side of the story seems to have played out in this book, but another side – the deeper story, I think, is coming to the fore.

As is another exceptional woman.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to be so close to the end of all of this, but I have to press on with the next book ….

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett (1966)

I loved the first two books of the Lymond Chronicles, but when I began to read this book I couldn’t help thinking that those books were laying foundations and that this book would be where she really hit her stride.

It was wonderful to be back in Scotland with familiar characters from the first book who I had rather missed in the second. The opening sequence moved from Will Scott’s wedding to a skirmish with English border raiders and then back to the wedding party again. It and it was vibrant, it was colourful and it was a joy to read.

That set the scene perfectly.

In the first part of the book, Lymond was drawn into the cause of the Knights of Malta, as they struggled to defend their island home from the Turks. There was intrigue, because it was clear that there were more than the stated reasons the invitation extended to Lymond, and for his accepting that invitation. This early part of the story set in Malta and Tripoli, evoked those places wonderfully well. It was perfectly executed, it was immaculately written; there were some wonderful moments, there were some significant plot developments; and yet it was only setting the stage for events that would unfold back in Scotland.

Lymond was charged with creating a new military force for Scotland, its objective to break the cycle of clan warfare so that all of Scotland’s forces could be set against the English. Among the company is a group of refugee Knights of Malta, led by Sir Graham Malett, known as Gabriel, who is set on creating a religious force and making Lymond part of that force.

That’s as much as I can say about specifics of the plot; because there is such clever and effective sleight of hand, because my understanding of events shifted, and because if you have read this book you will know and if you have you should read and you shouldn’t know too much before you do.

The depth and the complexity of the characterisation is extraordinary; and a cast populated by fictional characters and historical figures lived and breathed. I have come to love many of them – Janet Beaton and Kate Somerville are particular favourites – and the death of one early in the story made me realise how very real this world and the people who moved through it have become to me.

There would be other deaths and some of them broke my heart. Most were dictated by the real history that is missed so effectively with fiction, and others I understood served the unfolding plot.

I reacted more emotionally to this book than others; and fortunately there were scenes to inspire laughter, anger and joy as well as grief.

Two new characters – a man and a woman – became central to the story. They were both quite unlike anyone else in the story, they were psychologically complicated and interesting, and they brought much colour and drama.

The success or failure of this book though, rested firmly on the shoulders of its central character. I am still drawn right in with his charisma, his manifold talents, and the evolution of his character and his story.

There were times when he seemed to have matured, but there were times when he seemed childishly, foolishly reckless. I would come to understand his reasons, that there were times when he had to position himself and play a part, but there was something there that came from character rather than pure necessity.

Certain things within the Crawford family that I had observed before were emphasised in this book, and I am very curious to find out more.

There were not as many set pieces as I expected in this book, but I didn’t miss them because there was so much that was rooted in character and history, and because I saw that much of what had happened before was building the story arc that would grow through this book.

I loved one scene that I haven’t seen mentioned much; an extended scene that had echoes of something the happened at the very beginning of the first book.

The finale was a tour de force, an extended set piece rich with colour, drama and emotion that set things up perfectly for the next book and the books to come after that.

I love that the thee books in this series have been distinctive but they have also been worked together to reveal different aspects of a character and to move his story forward.

I know that I will come back to them again and see things that I missed reading them for the first time, but now I have to get back to ‘Pawn in Frankincense – the fourth book – and find out what happens next.

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett (1964)

This second book of the Lymond Saga opens in 1550, two years after the events described in ‘The Game of Kings’.

Mary of Guise, queen dowager and regent of Scotland is planning a journey to France; to visit her eight-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, who is being brought up at Henri II’s court as the affianced bride of the Dauphin. She knows that the fate of Scotland is tied up with the fate of its young queen, and her she has been given reason to believe that her child is in danger.

She is right to be concerned.

She knows that there are some very unscrupulous people in and around the French Court and that the English and the Irish in particular would seize any chance to break the alliance between France and Scotland. Queen Mary of England is struggling to contain the Protestant movement and keep her land as a strong Catholic power, and she knows that the alliance will make that more difficult to achieve. The Irish want to end of the English occupation of their country, they need France to help them and they are ready to use any means necessary ….

Francis Crawford of Lymond, newly restored to favour, is the man that the queen dowager wants to accompany her to France, and to uncover any plots against the little Queen. Her advisers counsel against that, they warn her that he would not agree, that he was not biddable, that he would too recognizable to the French; but she is quite certain that he is the best man for the job and she agrees to his terms – that he may carry out the job as he sees fit.

Given such a charge, most men would travel discreetly, live quietly, and observe the court from the sidelines; but that is not Lymond’s way. He sets about winning a place at the very centre of the court, hiding in plain sight,  and putting himself in a position influence people and events – and to reveal the machinations of all of the interested parties. It was intriguing to watch as  Lymond stepped into and between fraught political alliances and schemes, knowing that any one of them could pose a threat to Queen Mary’s life – and that the slightest misstep could herald the end of his own life.

I found the difference in scale and perspective interesting when I compared this book with ‘The Game of Kings.’ On one hand this book was concerned with greater matters – affairs of state and the future of countries rather than one man’s future –  but on the other hand it felt smaller and more enclosed, in the confines of the court rather than moving freely and at will.

That gave a different perspective on Lymond, a different view of his many accomplishments, his skill at managing people and situations, his resourcefulness and the resources he had to draw upon …. but because he was playing a role for most of this book I can’t say that I understand too much more at the end than I did at the beginning, or that I am at all sure where the performance ends and the person behind it begins.

That plot is complex, multi-stranded, and so cleverly constructed. I couldn’t say that I had a good grasp of what was going on, but I was captivated by wonderfully rich and detailed writing; by a wealth of scenes that had different tones and different tempos but were all quite perfectly painted; and the set pieces were dazzling. There’s a near disaster at sea, a stampede of elephants, a wrestling match and – best of all – a moonlit roof-top race that I could quite happily re-read and re-live time and time again.

The court of Henry II was so well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is such a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, I’m sure that I missed things, that a second read will reveal more, but this book lived and breathed and I know that I have to read on, to find out what happens next and understand where this series of books is going.

I was unsettled at first by the loss of so many characters from the first book who I thought would be of continuing importance, and I am not sure that this book – caught up with one particular quest – moved things forward too much and that means that I have to say that I couldn’t love this book as much as I loved ‘The Game of Kings.’

I’m sure that it has a purpose – I think saw seeds being sown – I think I met characters who will move forward,  beyond this story- and it might be that I will appreciate it more when I see its place in the series as a whole.

And I think I need to stop writing and go back to reading ….

 

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (1961)

Do you have a book – or a series of books – that you keep in a box marked ‘ I want to read, it, I know I’ll love it, but I have to wait for the perfect moment’ ?

I did – I still do.

And I say that because Dorothy Dunnett’s books used to live in that box, but they don’t live there any more.

I began to collect those books when they were out of print in this country; because I have always loved historical novels, and because the author of these historical novels was so lauded. I have come across many readers who read and re-read her books, and I have a very clear memory of a bookish television, some years ago, where I saw an author speaking so articulately of how she and her husband would eagerly await publication of each new book, and read aloud to each other.

I was sure that I would love them, but I hesitated to start reading because there were so many thick books, because I heard they were filled with complex plots, and a wealth of abstruse literary and historical allusions.

In the end though, the arguments for reading became overwhelming.

I picked up the first book, and now I can tell you that I loved it.

It was complex, I’m quite sure there were things I missed, I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going on, but none of that mattered. I was captivated, I had to keep turning the pages, and it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, talking at very great length …

The story opens in Scotland, in the 1540s.

The king’s widow, Mary of Guise, rules the country as regent for her infant daughter, who the world will come to know as Mary Queen of Scots. England has a boy king, Edward VI, and his realm is governed by the Lord Protector. He wants the Queen of Scots to be the bride of his King, so that he will rule over the whole of island of Great Britain. His troops are making forays into Scotland, and some of the Lords of that country are inclined to throw their lots in with the English. The rulers of the great European powers are watching, eager to see what will happen, and thinking how that might benefit, what they might do to steers events.

That’s an interesting point in history that I hadn’t considered too much, I don’t remember finding in fiction before, and it was lovely to follow a story in that period, so richly evoked.

That story was sparked by the dramatic return from exile of Francis Crawford of Lymond: the younger son of a noble family, a lover of wit and game-playing, and a former galley-slave. It gradually became clear that he was on a mission to prove himself innocent of a six-year-old charge of treason, that he believed that one of three distinguished Englishmen held the key to the success or failure of that mission, but that to have any chance of success he must avoid a great many interested parties who want to take him captive – or worse.

That’s as much as I can say about specifics of the plot.

That plot is labyrinthine; and as I found my way through that labyrinth I saw so many different scenes, and I realised that there were so many different aspects to this story; there were twists and turns, shocks and revelations, tragedy and comedy, high drama and quiet reflection. Some things became clear, other things remained opaque, and often it was revealed that things were not as they seemed at all.

The construction was so clever, and I loved that there were so many small details that could have slipped by unnoticed but would prove to be vitally important.

The depth and the complexity of the characterisation is extraordinary; and a cast populated by fictional characters and historical figures lived and breathed.

The world that they lived in is as well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is so a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, and I could see no flaw in it; everything felt real and everything felt right.

The use of language is wonderful, and the love of language is clear; it may be too much for some in Lymond’s verbal flourishes, but I loved them and I think that anyone with a love of words, anyone who regrets that some many lovely words in the English language are underused, would love them too.

The success or failure of this book though, rested firmly on the shoulders of its central character. Francis Crawford of Lymond could be infuriating, but he had such charisma that I had to follow his story. He is incomparable, and the nearest I can come to any sort of comparison is to say that if you can imagine that the Count of Monte Christo had not been an honest sailor but an educated, cultured player of games …

It took a little time for him to grow on me. I realised that there was a lot of back story to account for the way he chose to make his entrance, the ridiculous risks he took, the terrible antipathy between him and his elder brother; but even taking all of that into his account there were times when he struck me as juvenile and spoilt.

As the story progressed though, he seemed to become more mature, and I came to realise that his history had left him damaged and deeply troubled. His relationship with one particular woman swung me completely to his side, even though I still wasn’t entirely sure where right and wrong lay in this story.

As events unfolded I became more and more involved, and though I didn’t want the story to end I did want to know how it would end.

That this is the first book in a series gave me a clue, and how I envy those readers who found this book when it was first published who didn’t even have that one small clue.

Dorothy Dunnett played fair, but oh how clever she was. The drama kept on coming, even after a dramatic shift into a courtroom, and it was only at the very end of the book that I could stop, draw breath, and realise what an extraordinary journey this book had been.

There is so much that could be said, and I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I understand now why so many people love this series of books, have read and re-read them, have written at length.

I’d love to do the same, I wish I’d started sooner, and now it’s time I started reading the next book.