Pawn in Frankincense: Dorothy Dunnett

★★★★★

The Lymond Chronicles: Book IV

After my reservations about The Disorderly Knights, I felt some anxiety as I embarked on Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth book in the Lymond Chronicles. However, there is very little to find fault with here: it is a magnificent novel, richer and more powerful than any of its predecessors in the series. I found it interesting to compare it to Queens’ Play, which I also enjoyed, for very different reasons. While Queens’ Play takes place in a small area of France, Pawn in Frankincense unfurls across the breadth of Europe and North Africa, embracing Switzerland, France, Algiers, Djerba and then Constantinople, the greatest and most dazzling city of all.

At the time I thought that Queens’ Play had raised the stakes, placing the focus on the struggle between nations rather than individuals; here, though, faith pits itself against faith and empire against empire. It’s truly epic, in every sense. And, while Queens’ Play had plenty of comedic moments, sparkling with youthful mischief, Pawn in Frankincense subjects its characters and readers to a greater dose of bitterness and tragedy. One thread of the story closes; another begins; and of course I’m now so completely absorbed that, lacking the next volume in hard copy, I immediately downloaded The Ringed Castle to my Kindle. I daren’t start it until I’ve posted this, though. I don’t want my reactions to any of the books to be informed by what happens later on.

The novel opens in 1552. Lymond sets out from Marseilles, charged with delivering a princely gift from the French king – an elaborate spinet – to the Sultan in Constantinople. His journey into the Ottoman world has two deeper purposes: first, to find his young son, who languishes somewhere in the Sultan’s realm; and second, to find and kill the renegade Gabriel, who has the boy in his power. Neither is as simple as it sounds. If any harm comes to Gabriel before Lymond has freed the child, the child will die. And there is no easy way to tell which is Lymond’s child: there are two candidates, one of whom is Lymond’s blood and the other the son born of incest between Gabriel and his sister Joleta. (It suddenly becomes apparent why it was stressed, in the last book, that Joleta had previously had a child.) Lymond cannot know which is which; he must therefore strive to save both. He must do all this while trying to protect his companions, who (against his wishes) include the self-willed Philippa and the brilliant but unnerving Marthe. He can’t take any risks: with the ghastly revelation of Oonagh O’Dwyer’s fate, Gabriel has made it clear that he will target any chink in Lymond’s armour.

In my post on Queens’ Play, I wondered how Lymond would cope in a situation where his accomplishments, his network of associates and his sprezzatura were no longer enough to bring him through a challenge. I wanted to see what kind of man he really was when placed under extreme pressure. I was also curious to see if he would develop greater compassion for those around him rather than abandoning them, when he no longer needed them, to ridicule (like O’LiamRoe) or despair (like Robin Stewart). Well, I have my answers now (spoilers ahead).

Lymond has matured since the earlier books: he now understands that a leader must take responsibility not only for his own well-being, but for that of his friends. Matched with an opponent who is equally brilliant and far more ruthless, weighed down by his sense of duty, Lymond pushes himself to the very edge of physical and emotional endurance. Drained by opium addiction and deprived of the objective self-control he has taken for granted, he is reduced to his raw essence. And yet everything he does is still focused on the well-being of those he has appointed himself to protect – a decision parodied and perverted by the extraordinary game of live chess at the end of the book.  The choice he has to make in that game is the bitterest and bleakest of any so far; for his sake, I can only hope there is nothing later to equal it.

Yet this isn’t just Lymond’s story. His companions are given their own space to develop. Take Jerott, for example, to whom I was fairly indifferent in the last book. Here he becomes an unexpectedly sympathetic character, as he wrestles with the emotional complexities of leaving the Order of St John for the real world. His turmoil actually provides some of the lighter moments in the book, as he more than anyone else suffers from the remarkable similarity between Lymond and the mysterious Marthe (on whom more soon). I hope he finally manages to figure out what he really wants from life.

And then there is Philippa, of whom I’m rather fond. Notable for her good sense, her honesty and her emotional intelligence, she sacrifices her own freedom and enters the Sultan’s seraglio to fulfil her pledge to care for the child Kuzúm. She is probably the character who develops most over the course of the book, because she has the intelligence to make the most of the opportunities available to her in the harem. Striving to improve herself, both in mind and body, Philippa also takes her first steps in the political game, without ever losing her humanity. Lymond’s proposal to her at the end of the book is a gesture of respect, a means to preserve the good name she has lost through her stalwart support of his cause. Philippa becomes a wife without a husband, because Lymond has no intention of returning to Scotland, and yet it also gives her independence. Under rather different circumstances, Lymond claims in this book that he has never yet loved anyone. I wonder how true that is: I imagine he and Philippa would do rather well together in the long run. But there are two books left. All things may change.

And so to Marthe, who intrigues me. With the gusto of someone who’s watched Twelfth Night too many times, I immediately theorised that she and Lymond must be twins, separated at birth (for some reason) and reared separately under the watchful eye of the Dame de Doubtance. I’m not much the wiser now, though Marthe has confirmed that Lymond is her brother. The relationship is left unclear: the others assume she is his illegitimate half-sister, but Marthe hints at one point that they may even be full siblings. I remember that in The Disorderly Knights Gabriel specifically noted the differences between Lymond and Richard, who are dissimilar both in looks and temperament.

Certainly Lymond and Marthe are much more alike – although I marvel at the fact that two children can be raised apart and yet have the same character, the same education and the same store of cultural references. Marthe has evidently been trained very well, but by whom, and for what purpose? Of course, that’s not the only question. If they are full siblings, then the identity of their mother becomes a very interesting problem; but I’m still formulating my views on that. (Needless to say, please don’t tell me any answers!) I’m not sure how Marthe will develop in the later books, although she could benefit – like Lymond – from a little more compassion. At the moment, I pity her. She is as bright and curious and talented as Lymond and yet it seems the world has never given her the chances he has had to shine, simply because she is a woman. I will be intrigued to see what use she makes of any such chance, should it arise.

Here, once again, Dunnett revels in her descriptive abilities and there are plenty of stunning scenes. The game of chess must take the prize for most powerful scene in the book, but another of my favourite episodes was the early sea-battle, which takes place shortly after Lymond’s galley leaves Marseilles. It would be a stirring scene in any weather, but to give it an extra otherworldly power, Dunnett decides to set it beneath a sky streaked and discoloured by a sandstorm from the African coast, drenching the scene in a hellish glow:

The sun had gone, and although it was afternoon still, falling chiffons of light brown and russet concealed the light from the sky and enclosed the three ships and the glittering, indigo water in a strange saffron dusk. Within it, the shining wood of the masts, the white sails of the enemy, the blanched ranks of slaves and fighting men gleamed not ruddy but a cold aquamarine; a ghostly blue-white that peopled the three ships, as they converged silently, faster, with a crew of dead men.  

Marvellous stuff.

As the book draws to a close, Lymond has achieved his aim, but at a price. Gabriel is dead but so is Khaireddin, one of the two children whom Lymond has unearthed and perhaps the one who was genuinely his son. The other boy, Kuzúm, who may be Gabriel’s and Joleta’s son, is in Philippa’s charge, returning to Scotland. It would seem that the loose ends have all been neatly tied up; but throughout this book it’s become increasingly clear that Lymond and Gabriel are themselves merely pawns in someone else’s game. Needless to say, there are more questions which I hope will be answered in later books.

Who are the Geomalers, for example? A quick Google search reveals that they are only discussed in the context of Dunnett’s books, which suggests that they are either very obscure or her creation entirely. If so, for what purpose? Who, really, is Kiaya Khátún? Now that Lymond is in her power, whether by choice or not, I hope we will find out a little more about his background and his connection to Marthe (although the Dame de Doubtance is dead, I suspect that Kiaya Khátún knows a great deal more than she lets on).

To conclude, I’ve finally had a definitive answer to my question about Lymond’s age. It is as I thought. All I can say is that, reading these books at the age of twenty-seven, I can’t help feeling that my CV is desperately lacking…

Buy the book

Last in this series: The Disorderly Knights

Next in this series: The Ringed Castle

12 thoughts on “Pawn in Frankincense: Dorothy Dunnett

  1. simhedges says:

    There will be an informal Dorothy Dunnett get together in London on 10th November for International Dorothy Dunnett Day – you should try to get along, especially if you've read RC and CM by then. As for feeling your CV is lacking, I think that skipping the opium addiction, a sexual liaison with Margaret Lennox, and time as a galley slave may have its pluses…

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Hmm… nevertheless you must admit it would liven up interviews no end… As I write this, I'm a fifth of the way through “Checkmate” so will definitely be done and dusted (and possibly reread) by November. I might even manage to get through the remaining three books of “Niccolo” by then as well. Please let me know further information about the day when it's available – thanks so much for letting me know about it!

  3. Leander says:

    Thank you! I shall look forward to reading that when I've finished the series. I have to admit that, having read the first half of “Checkmate”, my pity for her has waned somewhat…

    And thank you for the pointer to further information about the event in November. I'd certainly love to spend some time with other people who've enjoyed these books as much as I have. I'm just sorry I will never be able to meet Dorothy Dunnett herself. Her erudition is just staggering. What a lady she must have been…

  4. Anonymous says:

    The Geomalers are recorded by Nicholas de Nicolay (from DK). His book is _The Navigations into Turkey, and if you lok hard enough you cna find it. The copy I laid hands on years ago was 'translated out of the French by T. Washington the younger.” It contains woodcuts of people, including a geomaler in full regalia.

    Elaine T.

  5. simhedges says:

    Hi – it'll be announced on the dunnettcentral.org site, and probably on the dunnettcentral facebook page. And yes, those interviews certainly would be enlivened, but possibly with a reduced chance of success: “So, Mr Crawford, let me explain again about our drugs policy…”

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