The Ringed Castle: Dorothy Dunnett

★★★★

The Lymond Chronicles: Book V

My head is spinning: I am now so close to the end of the series that I find myself galloping along, devouring the book whenever I have a few minutes.  I’ve been reading at ramming speed – and I have such a compulsion to find out what happens that I’m afraid I may have missed some of the finer points.

The fifth volume of the Lymond Chronicles opens in Russia, where Kiaya Khátún (now usually called Güzel) and Lymond take up residence in Moscow.  I still don’t quite understand the balance of power between these two and I wonder what Güzel’s own ambitions in Russia are – is it as simple as exercising authority through powerful men?  Somehow I doubt it.  For Lymond himself, Russia is an intellectual problem and a distraction from the events of Pawn in Frankincense.  His first challenge is a military one: Russia has no army to speak of, and so Lymond recalls the men of St Mary’s, his elite mercenary company, to train and form the backbone of a new force to serve the Tsar.

But there is more about Russia that appeals to Lymond: he is fascinated by its sense of possibility.  Haunted by the Dame de Doubtance’s prophecy in Pawn in Frankincense, in which she says that his father’s two sons will never meet again, Lymond has sworn not to return to Scotland in an effort to spare Richard Crawford from any harm.  Russia seems a plausible alternative. It’s a young nation, ready to be moulded by a man who has the intelligence and ambition to do so, and Lymond believes himself to be that man.  So, when he goes back to London to accompany the Tsar’s first ambassador to England, and to help the English merchants who want to form a trading company in Russia, Lymond also seeks out men who can help him transform his Tsar’s country into an exemplary Renaissance state.

I think that, for Lymond, this project is a way of finally creating something lasting, something beautiful, from his knowledge and experience – which so far has brought only death and increasing bitterness.  That is why, even with news of the Tsar’s change of heart later on, he fights desperately for the opportunity to go back, hoping to maintain his plans for the development of the country, and to protect the Tsar Ivan against his own demons.  Since that same Tsar goes on to be known to history as Ivan the Terrible, I presume Lymond doesn’t succeed in the next book.  What is absolutely fascinating is that so much of the Russian story – the trade with England and the embassy of Osep Nepeja – is historically accurate.  Richard Chancellor (whom I’m proud to claim as a fellow native of Bristol) even has a Wikipedia page.

Lymond’s return to Britain means that he has to face some issues that he’s been trying very hard to avoid: first, his family (Richard is one of the first people he meets, signalling that perhaps the Crawford family tree is not all it should be); and secondly, his wife. I said last time that I’d grown fond of Philippa and in this book she continues to progress. With no time for male posturing and silent noble suffering, she sets out to discover what she can about Lymond’s birth (it’s telling, perhaps, that despite everyone reassuring her that her marriage is only temporary, Philippa seems utterly unconcerned by her unsuitable spouse).  Her enquiries aim to answer the questions sparked off by the discovery of Marthe and to find a way to salve the increasingly agitated relationships between Lymond, Sibylla and Richard. In her quiet, stubborn, industrious way she comes very close to her goal.

I must admit that the way Lymond’s attitude to Philippa changed over the course of the book was one of the aspects I most enjoyed, and I may – just may – have done a little dance after the scene at the Office of the Revels and Masques. Mind you, quite apart from that, I thought that scene was great because it’s one of the few episodes where you see the characters simply having  fun and revelling in their quick wits. Yet, for all the admiration Lymond feels for Philippa, her discoveries undermine yet another part of his self-confidence. He suddenly has confirmation that the mother he adores is not as flawless as he’d always thought, and that he has no legitimate place in his own family. His reaction is to try to close himself away, to repel anyone who wishes to breach his defences, and he does succeed with Richard and Sibylla, although it becomes clear that Philippa is too shrewd a judge of character to let him do the same with her.

Alongside the questions over his own parentage, Lymond has to face the issue of the child Kuzúm, and although we do seem to have settled on a categorical answer about that, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if it changes again in the next book.  If anything, Kuzúm ends this book with more potential fathers than he had on starting it.

The last book impressed me so much that perhaps it was inevitable this one wouldn’t quite grab me in the same way. Much of the second half is set in London and, frankly, this didn’t engage me as much as the parts of this series which have taken place elsewhere. That is for entirely personal reasons: I live in London and, for all their glories, Whitehall or Threadneedle Street will never have the same glamour for me that I imagine in the frozen sweep of Russia, with its dazzling Kremlin and golden domes. My feelings about the London sections have nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which remains very high (my favourite ‘set-pieces’ this time round included the breathless sleigh race and the violent shipwreck of the Edward Bonaventure).

There were a couple of points, perhaps, when I felt that the plot was slightly weighed down by the details of later Tudor politics, which felt a bit like revisiting my A Level History course.  And yet I suppose this had to be done, to put Lymond’s own story in its wider context. On the other hand, I did enjoy finding out a bit more about Dr Dee, who is such an intriguing person that I think a bit of extra reading might be called for. (As a matter of fact, I saw his obsidian mirror today at the British Museum – more on that in my next post.)

The final book is ready to read on my Kindle and it has taken extreme self-control not to leap into it immediately.  I certainly don’t have the discipline to wait for a hard copy to arrive.  So, what are my hopes for the conclusion of this remarkable story?

Well, I’ve no doubt there will be more of the intrigue and double-bluffing that have featured so strongly in the series so far, and on the basis of the previous books it’s highly unlikely that Lymond will escape without a duel or a wrestling match. I’d like to find out what the nature of his correspondence with the Lady Elizabeth is, and whether he’ll have some role to play when she ascends to the throne (with his network of contacts, he could put Walsingham out of a job… it probably isn’t significant, is it, that they’re both called Francis?). It would be good to have some firm answers about Lymond’s father; and I’d be interested to know more about the Dame de Doubtance and her role in all of this, as well as the intentions of the enigmatic Güzel. I’d also like to see some more of Marthe and Jerott, whom I found so absorbing in the last book and who didn’t appear at all in this instalment.  In lieu of other information, I just had to assume that Marthe was ruthlessly tormenting Jerott somewhere off-stage.

But I don’t think it’s going to be an easy book.  At the beginning of Pawn in Frankincense, the Dame de Doubtance said to Lymond: “Evil matters.  So does love.  So does pity.  My pilgrim… you have still three bitter lessons to learn.”  I presume that he came to understand the power of evil through Gabriel’s actions in Algiers and Constantinople; and I think that he’s beginning to appreciate the importance of love thanks to Philippa’s particular brand of obstinacy, though I wouldn’t say there has been anything exactly bitter about that so far.  And that leaves pity as the one lesson still to go.  The very title of the final book, Checkmate, gives me some qualms: I’ve a horrible feeling that Dunnett isn’t the kind of author who manufactures happy endings all round.  Who, I wonder, will be held in checkmate? And who, now that Gabriel is dead, will be Lymond’s opponent?

(I haven’t really been able to scratch the surface of these books in this, my initial reading. There is so much to unpick and understand that I now fully appreciate why so many people are so gripped by it, and why the Dorothy Dunnett Society flourishes so vigorously. Dissertations could be – and probably have been – written on these books…)

Buy the book

Last in this series: Pawn in Frankincense

Next in this series: Checkmate

 

5 thoughts on “The Ringed Castle: Dorothy Dunnett

  1. maryb says:

    When I finished all six novels I turned around and read all six again immediately because I knew that I had missed so much detail due to flying through the books wanting to find out how it all ended (especially books 4-6).

    I can see where all the Mary Tudor detail might be a bit boring if you are already familiar with it but I wasn't when I read it the first time so I found it very informative.

    It also took me reading it a second time to figure out how much time had passed between Phillipa leaving Lymond in Greece with his addiction and when they finally meet again in London. For some reason I thought it was a shorter period the first time through.

  2. Leander says:

    Thanks for your comment, maryb. I certainly didn't mean to imply that the Marian politics were boring; I doubt that Dunnett could be boring if she tried. I think my feelings about those sections were exacerbated because I was so keen to find out what happened next with Lymond's own stories… The fault of impatience, nothing more, and my fault alone!

    Now halfway through “Checkmate”. Not long to go…

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