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!
Last in this series: Queens’ Play
Next in this series: Pawn in Frankincense