The Disorderly Knights: Dorothy Dunnett

★★★

The Lymond Chronicles: Book III

And so, from the tumbling moors and hills of Scotland, and the stately, chivalric glitter of Blois, we come to Malta, to the sand and dust and bleached blue skies. This third volume in the Lymond Chronicles is a strange beast: after Queens’ Play, which I enjoyed immensely – with its strong, stand-alone story and its clear sense of purpose for Lymond – I feel much more ambivalent about The Disorderly Knights. I know this series well enough by now, and I trust Dunnett enough as a writer, to believe that it all has a purpose. But there were points, especially in the first half of this book, where my faith faltered. In time, when I have read the following books and better understand the foundations being laid here, I am sure I will fully appreciate her decisions; they just left me feeling a little lost at times.

Since his return from France in 1550 (at the close of Queens’ Play), Lymond has become a force to be reckoned with. He is approached by French representatives of the Knights of Malta, who have heard about his reputation and who persuade him to join their campaign – ostensibly because they value his sword-arm, but really because they want to analyse his potential and his qualities.  Lymond’s decision to go seemed odd to me. I understood that Oonagh O’Dwyer’s presence on nearby Gozo would have been attractive to him (though I confess I’m not particularly moved by Oonagh; perhaps that will change in later books); but the battle against the Turks is not Lymond’s battle. It was only later that I realised he must have been conducting an analysis of his own: of the Knights’ forces, their techniques and their personnel – information that will be useful for Lymond’s true goal: the creation of an elite mercenary force of unsurpassed expertise.

Where Queens’ Play flows so smoothly and vividly, however, the Mediterranean sections of this book felt rather disjointed. Perhaps this is because Lymond is very much on the edge of everything in Malta and Tripoli, watching and taking action now and then, but doing so for his own reasons, which were kept screened from me.  I couldn’t enjoy watching his mind work because I was being shown only half the story. The return to Scotland was a relief, because the book seemed to find its feet again and drove on with more purpose – though not much more explanation.

Now that I know how things end, of course, I shall have to go back – I’m sure I missed clues, and that events which seemed random were significant. But, as in The Game of Kings, a first read is dizzying: the reader finds himself or herself whisked about from here to there, suddenly thrown into a completely new set of events and characters, and deprived of the well-structured activity that so enlivened Queens’ Play.

Having been carried along with Lymond as co-conspirators in Queens’ Play, we are now again reduced to the role of spectators, excluded, given only the facts.  The difficulty I had with this is that, in The Disorderly Knights, the facts are superficially very much against Lymond. (Spoilers ahead.) Even though I suspected Gabriel wasn’t all he seemed, Lymond’s behaviour shocked me at times: he seems to have grown acerbic and irreverent, and his treatment of Joleta (even though she’s far from sympathetic) was deeply unpleasant.  There were points in the book where I actually began to dislike him.  Much of it was rationalised in the end, but my fondness for him was nevertheless shaken.  And I’m glad.

I don’t want Lymond to become a stereotypical romantic hero: that would be a disappointing outcome in light of Dunnett’s wit and intelligence. At the same time, she risks a great deal in showing us, for most of the book, Lymond as he appears to the world: petulant, irresponsible and cutting, contrasted with Gabriel’s serenity and tolerance. This is important, of course, because it emphasises the constant mirroring of Lymond and Gabriel – the same hair, the same intelligence, the same ruthlessness, exercised in different ways (and the same taste in women, too?).  Lymond sees Gabriel as a threat, because they are so evenly matched, but he must also see him as a warning: this is something he, too, could so easily become.

Apart from the final battle in the cathedral – when I sat up with glinting eyes and thought, ‘Aha! This is more like it!’ – there aren’t many scenes in this book where Dunnett really indulges her descriptive skill. The emphasis is on action – the training of Lymond’s army being covered with the brevity of a cinematic montage – setting up a scenario which I presume will carry us through the next three books. Perhaps a book like this will always suffer: succeeding two richly-written novels, both self-contained, it must continue character development while briskly setting up all the plot points that must detonate at regular intervals for the rest of the series.

In fact, until the very end of the cathedral duel, I assumed that this book too would be neatly closed: that Gabriel would get all that he deserved. Instead, despite Lymond’s considerable efforts to the contrary, he manages to escape, but not before stating his evil intentions in some detail (why do villains do this?), warning Lymond: ‘It will teach you to remember Graham Malett‘.  All that was lacking was a swirl of his cloak and a tweak of his curling moustache as he dashed off stage left.  It felt uncharacteristically exaggerated and pantomimed for Dunnett.  Furthermore, I wondered why the rest of the characters assembled in the cathedral made no attempt to stop him.  For once, Lymond’s ingenuity failed him: I would have dearly loved to see Gabriel reach the small door by the altar (with a peal of evil laughter, no doubt), only to find that one of Lymond’s friends had quietly locked it while he was speechifying.

And so, where does this leave us?  Lymond, like Dunnett’s other hero Nicholas a hundred years before him, has his hand-picked, well-trained fighting force, and all of Europe at his feet.  His vow at the closing of the book – which was surprisingly powerful – suggests that the next book will take us off in pursuit of the errant Gabriel and of Lymond’s ill-fated infant son.  It looks as though, once again, we must turn our eyes east.

Some thoughts to conclude, following up comments I made in my post on Queens’ Play. Even now, Lymond still doesn’t seem to grasp the danger which he brings to those around him, and there were two goodbyes in this book which were a real wrench for me: both Will Scott and Buccleuch.  I admire Dunnett, however, for not being precious about her characters.  She is quite frank about violence and she gives Lymond more than his fair share of physical suffering: considering the number of injuries inflicted on him between 1550 and 1551, I’m amazed he’s still in one piece. Thankfully, she also retains her gentle humour throughout, especially in her female characters.  I have a special fondness for Sibylla, with her pretence of absent-mindedness, her kindness and her extreme shrewdness; but I also think Janet Beaton  is a superb creation: tough, argumentative and proud.

I think I have a tentative answer to my question about Lymond’s age.  He must, of course, be young enough to make a convincingly pretty girl – judging from the Hough Isa sequence.  I assume that he is about the same age as Jerrot Blyth, which would make him a mere twenty-five – ten years younger than I’d first imagined.

Pawn in Frankincense is waiting on the ‘to be read’ pile… but I may take a few days to ready my mind before plunging in again. I need my wits about me with Dunnett; I have learned that much at least!

Buy the book

Last in this series: Queens’ Play

Next in this series: Pawn in Frankincense

15 thoughts on “The Disorderly Knights: Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Helen says:

    I read the Lymond Chronicles earlier in the year and loved all six of them. This one was actually one of my favourites, so I've found it interesting to read your post and your reasons for not liking it as much as the previous two. I agree though that a lot of it was difficult to fully understand on a first read and I'm looking forward to reading it again – although I'm currently working through the Niccolo series and want to finish those first before I return to Lymond!

  2. maryb says:

    Hi, I've enjoyed your three posts about the Lymond Chronicles and reading what you like and don't like. I hope you enjoy the next book as much as I did. Pawn is my favorite of all six in the series. Look forward to hearing how you like it.

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you so much for your comment, Mary. Don't worry – my post on 'Pawn' should go live either tonight or early tomorrow morning London time. All I will say for now is that it's been my favourite book so far!

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks Helen! Equally, I'd love to hear your take on this as I may have been overly judgemental, or missed some of its subtleties. Like you, I think I'm going to have to go back to the House of Niccolo after this: I've only read three of those and I need to complete the set. 🙂

  5. cofax says:

    Drive-by comment long after you posted, but I hope you don't mind.

    I just wanted to note that Dunnett may not be as precious about her characters as you state here: if (now that you've finished the series) you think back, you will note that of the most painful deaths in the series, only three are entirely fictional characters (Christian Stewart, Oonagh, and Khaireddin). Will and Wat Scott, Tom Erskine, Diccon and Christopher Chancellor, Piero Strozzi, and even Robin Stewart were all real historical people. And I have always found Chancellor's death profoundly moving: I find myself mourning a man dead over four centuries, because of Dunnett's power. Quite amazing, really.

    But if you think about it, it's really quite unlikely that none of the men of St. Mary's die in France during Checkmate, and in fact even Guthrie and Hoddim return safely. I suspect that Lady Dunnett became quite as attached to that team of multi-talented reprobates as we her readers did…

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Good heavens, of course I don't mind! Please comment away 🙂

    You have a very good point – but nevertheless, when I was reading the series, I didn't know who was historical and who was not. For me, at that point, they were all just her characters. And it's a credit to the storytelling that the 'real' deaths felt just as crushing and just as tightly woven into the plot as the 'fictional' deaths did. Discovering, in the penultimate book, that actually most of the characters were historical, was a kind of bonus to the enjoyment of the story itself.

    And of course you're absolutely right about the men of St Mary's. No mercenary force can be that good 🙂

  7. adiscounttickettoeverywhere says:

    I enjoyed your post and largely shared your reservations about this book. Hugely annoyed by the massive spoiler in cofax's comment. I've only just started Pawn in Frankincense and don't want to hear about deaths that occur later in the series just yet. Please don't do that!

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    First of all, thank you so much for your comment – I think it's the first time you've commented and I'm always pleased to say hello to someone new. I'm sorry that the spoiler has ruined some of the anticipation for you, but on the one hand Dunnett is never quite what you expect… and on the other, I would always be careful about reading the comments if you really don't want to know what's coming up in the series. In my own posts I try to avoid unsignalled spoilers but I feel that the comments are a place for people to discuss the book however they wish and so there's always a risk that you'll find out stuff in the comments that you didn't want to know.

    That's why I personally took a very hard line and didn't read a single review or forum or website about Dunnett until I'd finished both series (except in Helen's case, because I knew she was reading them at the same time as me). Mind you, that was *very* hard and I wouldn't necessarily demand that of anyone else. 🙂

    Trust me, in this particular case the spoiler won't diminish your enjoyment of Pawn in Frankincense, which is a completely stunning book. With Dunnett it's often just as much the how and where as the what.

    I hope you'll keep reading the blog, but maybe for the rest of the Dunnett books it's safer to keep to the main post (where all spoilers are clearly signalled) and to come back to the comments when you know the whole story? Or just scroll through the comments and leave your thoughts without looking at anyone else's… as I'd love to know what you think of the rest of the series?

  9. adiscounttickettoeverywhere says:

    Thanks for your reply. I found your blog by accident on an image search and am very annoyed with myself for scrolling down to the comments, having avoided reading the review of PiF (where I landed first) to avoid spoilers! I was only looking for a space to say how much I appreciated your review…

  10. Anonymous says:

    I have decided to do a reread on the Lymond Chronicles a few weeks ago. But instead of “reading”, I decided to listen to them in audiobooks which are even better. I have just finished listening to The Disorderly Knight when I found your blog. Great to see some people reading and loving Dunnett's works.

    I would like to comment on two things: Re Lymond's decision to go to Malta, it was just not because of Oonagh. It was mainly to recruit his army. That Oonagh was also going there was a bonus plus the French's offer. The Knights of the Order are renowned fighting men and Lymond knew that. What better place to recruit his men. From the book, “What he did not know was that the same Francis Crawford had found out only that morning that an Irishwoman called Oonagh O’Dwyer had just taken ship at Marseilles for the island of Gozo. And that if Francis Crawford reached Malta, it was because he always meant to reach Malta; not to fight, but to recruit.” Plus, he knew Jerrott was also there.

    As to the battle with the Turks, I think it is best to say that while he did not come there to fight, once in those situations, he simply cannot ignore it. It is just not like him to do that. Lymond is never a disinterested spectator. As he himself acknowledged in Checkmate, 'but it was not a place in his life where he would deny help to any man.” That is also one of the reason why he began hating Gabriel, as he told Nicolas de Nicolay, when Gabriel allowed the women and children to return to Gozo. As per Lymond again “if Gabriel were all he appeared to be, he should have died on the landing-stage.” That is because, had Lymond known about the situation, he would have done eveyrthing he could to help the refugees, even to die trying.

  11. Anonymous says:

    minor clarification: Queen's play ends in June of 1551, not 1550. It becomes important; having made the same miscalculation, I spent the first third of Disorderly Knights very frustrated by the thought that a certain character must be an elephant with a 15 month pregnancy! the main action of DK starts in July 1551 (there are 2 short prequel sections covering a few events in Lymond's life in the 2 year interval between GK and QP. Lymond was born in 1526 so is about 25 at the start of DK. Remember, young men went to war much younger in those days (Battle of Solway Moss – when Lymond was captured and began his adventures – was in 1542, when he was only 16)

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