Checkmate (1975): Dorothy Dunnett


The Lymond Chronicles: Book VI

In the last half an hour, traversing the final few chapters of the book, my emotions have been masterfully manipulated. I’ve swerved from denial to triumph, followed by shocked immobility, and then a cool, tingling spread of realisation; finally, I have to admit, I actually cried (mainly with relief). I should say, first and foremost, that if you have any intention of reading this series – and by God, if you enjoy good books you should – then you shouldn’t read this post. There is no way on earth that I can write this without spoilers. So stop reading this now and, for goodness sake, go buy the first book and start the series for yourself!

Over six books, whatever my initial reservations about The Game of Kings, I have come to care very strongly about the dramatis personae in the Lymond Chronicles and that is a testament to Dorothy Dunnett’s powers of characterisation, her superb writing and an intricacy of plotting that would put Shakespeare to shame. This final instalment brought all the threads of Lymond’s various adventures together and the remaining characters converged on France, like filings to a magnet. In light of that, I feel I should publicly state my pity for Jerott Blyth: when I said last time that I imagined Marthe was ruthlessly tormenting him off-stage, I was speaking tongue-in-cheek and had no idea how accurate my guess had been.

Channelling the gleeful humour of Queens’ Play, Dunnett begins the book with a series of playful scenes – foremost among them, in my opinion, Philippa’s irreverent but rather wonderful first entrance to the Maréchale’s house and then her rampage through the fogs of Lyon with Lymond. For me, that section was just as enjoyable as the race over the rooftops of Blois, if not more so. In Lyon we aren’t asked to sit back and watch one man’s superior skill, but to admire two very able characters pooling their wits and talents, and benefitting each from the other. (And, if this book proves anything, it’s that Philippa can live up to the pace set by her husband – the difficulty only comes when she takes her duty further than he would ever ask her to.)

However, it is precisely the light-heartedness of these scenes which increases the impact of the rather eerie episode, nestling between them, in which Lymond enters the chamber of the Dame de Doubtance. Before I realised what was happening there, that scene brought me closer to terror than I’ve been for a long time when reading a book (I was tired; it was midnight; I live alone and have, occasionally, an inconveniently active imagination). But this rapid change of tone – and the fact I was so easily swept along with it – is yet another sign of how perfectly-pitched Dunnett’s writing is.

Someone has already noted, rather teasingly, that perhaps I am so fond of Philippa because I see some elements of myself in her – these, I hasten to add, would be the fact of being an only child and the stubbornness, rather than the harem education (which was missed off my syllabus). With this in mind, I was particularly touched by a part of the book which perhaps most people wouldn’t have noticed: the section immediately after Philippa’s romp through foggy Lyon, when she exults in the sense of comradeship that she has found:

A heady experience, for an only child accustomed to single-thread happiness, and not to the moment of creation that occurs when the warp is interlocked with the weft. When the singer is matched with the sounding-board; the dream with the poet. When the sun and the fountain first meet one another.

This is so very perceptive. I thought this was a splendid way of allowing Philippa to gradually understand what her future might hold, if she allowed it to; and of course it emphasised, as Dunnett always has, that Philippa and Lymond would suit so well because they would be an equal partnership. Of course, it takes time for them to realise that: the book would have been considerably shorter if they hadn’t been competing in magnanimity, each trying to set the other free from a supposedly unwelcome bond (I am not, however, complaining). When the moment of truth eventually comes it is – as usual – handled with exquisite understatement: ‘Kate is my friend. That is true. But the songs were for her daughter.’ Blissful. But, characteristically of Dunnett, the moment comes and goes and then is left to do its silent work as the rest of the tumult rages round.

Throughout the series Lymond has grown used to acting alone – to drawing in others when he needs them and dismissing them as summarily. It is his way of protecting them: to take all the strain and responsibility onto himself; and it has worked well, though in this book we see the physical cost of that. It is only really in Checkmate (and at the very end of The Ringed Castle) that his friends determine to break down his walls and, with or without his permission, to stop him destroying himself. The one who takes this to extremes is, of course, Philippa, who almost destroys herself in the process but who manages, thereby, to  reach Lymond’s inner self in a way that no one else could have managed.

For all my admiration of Philippa, I did wonder whether it was quite plausible that she should be so deeply affected by what she had done, for so long. One might argue that many of the more desperate events at the end of the book could have been moderated, or averted, if she hadn’t allowed Lymond to once again build an emotional wall between them – which of course he did only to protect her. I don’t criticise the characterisation and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting how long it might take to overcome such a thing – perhaps it is never possible. What does strike me is that Philippa was aware of what she was going into, even if she couldn’t anticipate the revulsion she might feel. She knew that such a thing was a contract, to save the man she loved. And then, having herself been rescued by that man, who understood what she had done and had the good sense to see the desperation and nobility of soul that drove her to it… might she not have been able, bit by bit, to overcome her trauma with his help?

I don’t know. It is a difficult problem. And perhaps it is once again explained by the fact that until this point, as an only child, she has been secure in the knowledge that those around her (generally speaking) wish her no harm. This section does at least allow us to see the depth of connection between these two and Lymond’s genuine sensitivity. And of course it makes the conclusion of the book all the more powerful.

Marthe… what to say about Marthe? Many thanks to the kind person who left me a link to Bill Marshall’s blog, which finally I shall allow myself to visit, since I have no more fear of Lymond spoilers. Before I read that, though, I want to try to sort out my own imperfect thoughts. My sympathy for Marthe waned radically at the start of this book, when I assumed that her actions were designed to wound for no better reason than to see Lymond suffer from his supposed illegitimacy, as she had suffered. She certainly didn’t endear herself to me in her treatment of Jerott; but then again, one could argue that Jerott is hardly the right man to understand a cultured, intelligent woman like Marthe.

Towards the end, though, I began to feel sorry for her again (and not just for the obvious, bitterly ironical reason). It seems that Marthe’s whole life has been spent as a tool, being used by other people: as a helpmeet for the Dame de Doubtance, whose prophecies she feels bound to promote and safeguard; and perhaps even by Güzel, whom she loves but who (as far as I remember) never mentions her. And everything in this unsatisfactory life seems to revolve around Lymond, who has her grandmother’s attention, her grandmother’s bequests and Güzel’s attentions; none of which, Marthe must feel, he appreciates as much as she would. She is another mirror, as Gabriel was, of what Lymond’s brilliant mind might only too well have become. And, at the end, I still can’t make up my mind if she finally came bearing those papers to Lymond as a way to finally make peace, or simply because Danny Hawkins forced her to. Of course, her unexpected arrival was one of the most brilliantly-played moments in the whole series, and the one which accounted for the emotional turbulence described at the start of this post.

It has been a dizzying few weeks, as I’ve rushed through these books in just over a month. But it has been an unparalleled treat, not only because I’ve lost myself in some of the best writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, but also because it has enabled me to make contact with all of you. When I started out on the Lymond Chronicles, I had doubts about whether I would ever understand what was going on and whether I would ever actually like the protagonist. Fortunately both fears dissipated very quickly. Everyone who reassured me after The Game of Kings is correct. This is a remarkable series and a real benchmark of how to write historical fiction. As for Lymond himself, I can only echo what other people have said: he is one of the most complex, charismatic and interesting characters I have come across. Little did I imagine, when I checked The Spring of the Ram out of the library a year ago, without knowing Dorothy Dunnett’s name or anything about her, that it would lead me to such a great experience.

There is much more Dorothy Dunnett to be read, of course: I’ve only read three of the House of Niccolò series and so, in time, I shall no doubt go back and tackle that with renewed vigour (although I fear that Nicholas van der Poele may have been supplanted in my affections). And then of course there’s King Hereafter, which several people have recommended. But I can’t shake off a slight sense of bereavement, that I can never again have the sense of discovering these books for the first time.

Buy the book

Last in this series: The Ringed Castle

P.S. I now understand the indignation of one reader on the Dunnett Central Facebook page, who took exception to my idea that The Game of Kings would make a good film. She pointed out that she had an idea of Lymond in her mind and didn’t want it to be ruined. I now see her point. I’ve been avoiding all the editions of these books which show the characters on the cover, because they don’t look ‘right’; and I daresay there are no two readers out there who have the same image in their minds…

46 thoughts on “Checkmate (1975): Dorothy Dunnett

  1. maryb says:

    Heh. I threw the book across the room when I got to “that point” in the book. And … I didn't pick it up again for three days I was so angry at Dunnett for what I thought she had done. Then I gave in and decided to finish it. Imagine my surprise at the surprise ending. 🙂

    Congratulations on finishing. If you are like the rest of us, you will now find a void in your life that reading other authors just doesn't fill.

  2. Leander says:

    I quite agree with your first paragraph. The fact that you and I both felt that way shows that, even at that point, we couldn't quite be sure what she would do. I believed it was perfectly possible that she could end it like that, especially because in her introduction to all the books she says that 'nothing more about Francis Crawford could be written'. Eek.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The “heady experience” quote is one of my favourites, too, for much the same reason that you give. One of the (many!) things I love about Dorothy Dunnett is her insight into the female teenage mind – didn't you just love Agnes Herries? I find Philippa's extreme reaction to the terminal event totally convincing, especially given the shocking and horrifying nature of its ending. Plucky and resourceful young lady that she is, she thinks herself capable of emulating Lymond but while she is certainly a match for his courage she does not have his ability to deal with the emotional aftermath. Partly that's because of her age, and partly because of her nature. If Philippa were not, in this crisis, governed by her emotions, she would not be Philippa; she could not be the warm sun to Lymond's cool fountain. While I admire the care with which you approached the issue, I have several times heard the bald view expressed that, with her training, Philippa should have been able to get over it. Try telling that to someone with PTSD.

    While it's true that one can never have again the experience of reading these wonderful books for the first time, I hope that one day you will be able to chart the progress of another new reader as I have been able to follow yours. Your commentaries have recalled vividly to me the wonder and excitement of my own first reading, which I had thought lost forever. Thank you for sharing, and I hope we will meet in November on International Dorothy Dunnett Day.

  4. Kate Joekel says:

    I was like maryb, I almost didn't finish the last few pages of Checkmate! I was so mad! However I finally resigned myself to disappointment and read on. Of course my feelings changed rapidly and I ended with a deep sigh of contentment. In all of my extensive reading I have never come across an author with such magnetic charactors which harrowed up my emotions and imagination like Dorothy Dunnett in her Lymond series.

  5. Barb Morse says:

    Bereft – you can and likely will reread, discover nuances you missed the firts (second, thrid…time through), but nothing matches that first time.

    Have you met Nicholas yet? If not you have something to look forward to in the House of Niccolo series.

  6. hmcmullin says:

    I envy those of you who've come to DD after all the books were finished. We (my Mom, grandmother, assorted cousins and I) came across the Lymond Chronicles just before “Disorderly Knights” came out, which meant long, agonizing waits to read the next book. I even resorted to ordering them from James Thin in Scotland since they came out faster than in the U.S. – and then had to hide them until I finished or my Mother would snatch them away. My Mother, who worked for an Idaho Potato Growers Assn., even offered to send Lady Dunnett a bag of potatoes if she'd just hurry up and finish the last book. It didn't work, but she did have some delightful correspondence with her. You didn't mention the Johnson Johnson books – if you want to read a lighter side of DD, those are great fun.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Why am I so addicted to her novels? I'm reading “King Hereafter” again. There is so much in these stories that no matter how many times I read them I feel like I have missed something.

  8. Carol Hubbard says:

    “Leander,” I'm a writer by trade, but the review you've written is so insightful and eloquent — and reflects such a keen understanding of the masterpiece created by Dorothy Dunnett — that I will never try to match it (but, instead, will share it with others). I read each one of your words, with my heart cheering inside me.

    I was introduced to the first book as a senior in college (1973) and was captivated by the time I started book 2. A couple of years later, my best friend sent me Checkmate as a Christmas gift. Francis and Philippa have been an integral part of my life ever since — I read the series through every couple of years or so and own all the volumes now in first editions.

    The Lymond Chronicles are not just a great series of historical fiction … not just a great love story … but an unparalleled dramatization of the heights and depths of the human experience.

    BTW, as a prosaic ending to my well-deserved “kudos,” I think you DO look very much like I imagine Philippa would look. 🙂

    Kudoos … and hugs, Carol

  9. Caroline Mc says:

    Beautifully observed and written, and how I envied you having that first Checkmate experience! And how I understand that “bereft” feeling (which disappears a little when you realise there is more to discover, hidden away in first time reads.)Like other readers I re-immerse every few years. I didn't throw the book at “that part” but I was devastated: it was 2am or so in the morning and I could barely cope with the shock. I think I was so shocked that it addled my brain temporarily and I found it hard to understand the following passages with “only the spirit remained” taking on all kinds of confusing metaphyisical meanings. I agree with some of the DD Facebook page posters about laugh out loud moments in this series – aren't the wit and humour such blessings among all the drama and heartache? Did you really only cry once during this series? What about during Pawn in Frankincense? That novel too has such achingly sad moments and as a grandmother now (25 or more years after first reading the series) I can hardly bear to read about K and the nightingale house and, of course, the chess game. Philippa's sacrifice still moves me and I certainly understand the aftermath and it rings true in every way. I love, love, love the passage in the final stages when Philippa is freed from the pain of that night (and I mean outside at Flaw Valleys not the inevitable and lovely later scene…). There were certainly times when I wanted to cry for Lymond who had no expectations of joy for himself and who was always thinking and acting for others' welfare, without defending his motives against their often-outraged misunderstandings. (Think of Jerrot's anger and disgust over Francis and the Aga Morat, with him being blind to the fact that F took it upon himself to spare J the attentions of AM). This is a remarkable series and I have never read anything to compare across a lifetime of reading. Dorothy Dunnett is in league of her own and it is joy to hear from others who adore her. Thank you! (Wish I could be in London in November :/) Caroline Mc

  10. Leander says:

    Thank you so much for your insights – yes, I completely understand what you're saying and I see your point about Philippa. As I said, I would never presume to dictate how long it should take someone to overcome something like that – I fully understand that events like this have the potential to be very traumatic. And I am so fond of Philippa that, really, I could never bring myself to criticise her too much 🙂

    Yes, Agnes Herries was also a very perceptively-written character, though in many ways she is the complete opposite of Philippa. When I first met her in “The Game of Kings”, I actually expected her to play a much larger part later on than she did – but I think that one of Dorothy Dunnett's strengths is to create very rounded characters who might only appear for a little while, and then fade away again.

    I'm really touched by your last paragraph and I'm thrilled to hear that you're going to be attending the London event in November. Please drop me an email and introduce yourself properly. I can't wait!

  11. Leander says:

    I think we're all with you there, Kate 🙂 I think I'd got myself so worked up about what I thought was going to happen – frankly (spoiler!) I thought he was going to die and so, when it seemed that he had died, I was angry but accepted it as perhaps the inevitable but rather unsatisfactory end of the story. Thus, imagine my joy when I suddenly realised that I had been misled. Sheer brilliance.

  12. Leander says:

    I've read three of the Niccolo books, Barb, but I think I'm going to have to go back and start again from the beginning. And of course I shall be reading the Lymond Chronicles again; probably multiple times!

  13. Leander says:

    Hi hmcmullin – I can't imagine how painful that must have been, to have to wait between books! I had a hard enough time waiting until I'd formulated my thoughts into a blog post before beginning the next book 🙂 What a lovely story about your mother. I'm sure Dorothy Dunnett must have been delighted to think that there were people out there who were so desperate to find out what happened to her characters. As for the Johnson Johnson books, I don't know those, but perhaps they are something to look up when I've finished her Niccolo series.

  14. Leander says:

    I think that's part of the magic. When you look at most of the books that are marketed to us nowadays, it's no wonder that we all feel particularly intrigued and challenged by a series like this, which makes us think so much, and which opens up so many other avenues of interest. I can't answer your question – why are you addicted? – but all I can say is that you're evidently far from being the only one! “King Hereafter” is definitely on my to-read list as well. 🙂

  15. Leander says:

    Carol, that's immensely flattering, and thank you so much – I may have to brush up on my seraglio skills and my lute-playing to be worthy of Philippa, however 🙂 To be frank, there's so much I could have written about these books, and so much else I wanted to veer off and think about – but I decided it would be best to get my thoughts down on paper as soon as possible after finishing each volume. How wonderful that you have all the first editions. I think I might join you in rereading them frequently. I have the impression that, by rereading them over ten or twenty years, the books might offer up consistently changing messages, for no other reason than that you as the reader are changing, and identifying with different figures and different elements of the story. It seems to be a story that speaks to all of us, no matter what our age, and that's a sign of the real mastery behind it.

    Totally with you on the 'unparalleled dramatization of the heights and depths of the human experience'. What a great way of summing it all up.

    Thank you again!!!

  16. kaththeamac says:

    The first time I read the series someone told me “Lymond dies” — and I didn't read “Checkmate” for several years! I just couldn't stand that it would end that way. Finally I read it and went through all the emotions everyone has mentioned. That was in the 70s. I just reread the series and found that while I remembered the basic arc I had forgotten SO MUCH! I'm very glad I reread them and wish I hadn't waited so long.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I have reread the Lymond Chronicles every 3 to 4 years since 1980, finding something new every time, and rejoicing in favorite passages. It took longer to warm to Nicholas- but I had to wait for those books to be published and reread in between. Also, Francis is High Renaissance,and Dame Dunnett wrote with a style to match. Trade initially drives more of Nicholas' travels (vs power politics/religion) so the writing reflects his growth. Now when I finish one series, I need to reread the other- it's a vicious cycle! Someday I hope to be able to attend Dunnett festival or tours- I am so jealous of the Istanbul travelers this Sept!

  18. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Caroline! I was certainly really caught up in “Pawn in Frankincense”, but during the chess game, for example, I simply felt numb and resigned – it's quite rare for a book to actually make me cry, and I think in the case of “Checkmate” it was just a way to release the tension of the entire series which had built up to that one, almost unbearable moment. Yes, the bit when Philippa suddenly realises he's safe at the end of “Checkmate” is fantastic. I had a great big smile on my face at that point.

    Your interpretation of the motivation behind Lymond's behaviour to the Aga Morat is so interesting. I assumed that he was doing that to store up goodwill and to ease the treatment of the group, but I didn't realise that it was specifically for Jerott's wellbeing. Yet another reason to reread the books 🙂 And actually I want to focus on Jerott next time round, to try to figure him out a bit more. I feel that he gets the thin end of the wedge in this series, really – he spends his whole time chasing dreams and putting other people on pedestals, and in return he has a marriage that makes him unhappy; and the ending, which makes so many of us happy, is just such a kick in the teeth for him. Poor Jerott…

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking comment 🙂

  19. Steve Mallett says:

    Leander, great piece. As a teenager, I first read The Disorderly Knights in the '70's and was hooked. Then back to the beginning rapidly devouring them in sequence as far as Pawn in Frankincense, followed by an agonising wait for DD to write the final two volumes. In those days I kept a dictionary and notebook handy as DD steadfastly increased my vocabulary. Popinjay and palimpsest are two I remember clearly! Like you, I was initially devastated at the “point” and then a little voice said, “it's never the way it looks in these books,” and so it proved. I was left with a hangover for weeks after finishing Checkmate and wondered if I would ever read anything so absorbing again. Of course The House of Niccolo series is also magnificent but Lymond was first.

    For the last few months I have been listening to The Lymond Chronicles on audiobook (currently halfway through The Ringed Castle) and am once again utterly entranced by the power and scope of DD's writing. I've also got all the Niccolo series on audio to look forward to.

    For forty years I have been raving to people about DD's writing and how a little investment of effort at the beginning will reap rich rewards but the only person who has ever really got it is my wife! Her favorite is King Hereafter which she reads regularly and foists on anybody she can.

  20. Leander says:

    Gosh, kaththeamac, that was a bit cruel of them. I hope you told them off afterwards? And yes, there's so much to remember that I kept feeling I should be going through with a notebook. But I had made a promise that my first read-through would be simply for the joy of it, and that I will save note-taking and further research for a future reading 🙂

  21. Leander says:

    There are people going to Istanbul? Oh wow… It's on my list of places to go and I'm sure that would be utterly the best way to see it. Maybe they'll do another trip there some day.

    You're absolutely right about there being a difference in handling between the books. I can't speak with authority on this because I've only read the first three Niccolo books, and I'm not feeling particularly articulate this morning, but if they were characters in a Shakespeare play, I get the feeling that Lymond would speak in blank verse and Niccolo (at least initially) in prose…

  22. Anonymous says:

    Leander, we may both be right in our interpretations of the Aga Morat thread? :> There is the scene where Jerrot comes across Francis and AM quarreling and Francis tells him to go away. I think keeping J “out of it” in every sense of the word was the source of the argument. But really I started noticing all of Francis's care for others more after a problem I'd fretted over. Namely not being able to fathom the scene with the servant Vensclesas in the 5th book (some of the confusion was my not getting the Robin Stewart reference..); and when asked about what it meant, Dorothy D said only that (I'm paraphrasing) “if it helps, remember that Lymond is always thinking of others”. I still didn't 'get it' because I thought the servant was returning from a tryst not going to one. I honestly seriously thought Lymond was thinking, “gee, I have been neglecting Guzul and one of my appetites”! (Of course, he wouldn't say “gee”…) THen I decided he was protecting the young boy from the kind of entanglement he'd experienced with the formidable Margaret Lennox. Which for him had proved a recipe for disaster. I saw the pattern then. Lymond was a much better person than he thought he was.
    I smiled over the comments about DD's words – I became fond of “preternatural” :> It is also fun to find the longest sentences – I found one that was 120 words long but it had a ';” in it – does it still count?
    And similarly, I have only ever persuaded one person to read it and that is my eldest daughter who is still in the hangover phase and loath even to discuss it.
    So it is great to have some blog discussion!
    Especially when we all agree that DD is a literary genius. Caroline Mc

  23. Anonymous says:

    I was so happy to hear Dorothy Dunnett read from the Francis series at a bookstore in Boston, probably when she was about 70 years old. After living in the world her books created in my imagination, I was worried that seeing her in person might be a disappointment, but that was just silly of me! She was everything one could hope for– such a lively, wonderful intelligence, full of wit, gracious while not exactly suffering fools gladly, and pretty darn chic as well, in her little black pantsuit and high heels!
    She read the scene where they are exploring theatre props and staging, and start composing alliterative verse on the fly, and after Philippa gets knocked out, Lymond carries her onto the boat and.. well you know. As soon as she started to read, the whole room just exhaled collectively with delight, recognizing the scene immediately and happy she had chosen it.
    And she was asked the question about films, and she said it just never happened, and when very pressed about who she thought could have played Lymond, she said that at the time she was writing them, it might have been Peter O'Toole.

  24. Anonymous says:

    i have adored the Lymond saga since I was 18 (and I'm now 60) and still reread them when I can bear to though they are deeply embedded in m psyche by now. i have had at least three copies of the first one through lending them to new readers but so few of my friends have really grasped them. My favourite moment of all the series is that moment in the warehouse antics which makes me catch my breath too, every time!

  25. Anonymous says:

    That was the most fun moment in the series, I think, but my favorites (besides the fabulous ending) were 1) when she was in his room after his engagement dinner for Catherine, and 2) when Adam frantically urged her to follow Francis into the library and “BREAK HIM.” It's been nearly two decades since I've read those books, and I can still almost recite those excerpts.

    I first ran across Checkmate at the grocery store checkout when I was pregnant. I spent my entire pregnancy reading and rereading that book, while playing medieval and Rensaissance music on the turntable (WAY before CD days!) I couldn't wait to track down the other 5 books. Oddly enough, the library had them, but they were all checked out. I scooped them up as they came available, and that happened in totally reverse order! To this day, I wonder if I would have had the discipline to read the entire series had I begun at the beginning. The books were so dense, unlike any fiction I'd ever read, and I wasn't in love with the early Francis. But meeting him for the first time, in his maturity, I was instantly captivated and desirous of researching his background, which is what the other 5 books represented to me. Such beauty. I so envy Ms. Dunnett her gift for creating such beauty. Yes, Shakespeare might have envied her, too.


  26. Anonymous says:

    I was living in Germany when I read my first book of the series — Checkmate (yes, I read the last book first — I didn't know it when I grabbed it off the grocery shelf). After it was finished, I was in a surreal fog, your hangover, for ages. There was a little, private castle open to the public about 45 minutes away from where I was living. About once a week I'd drive to it, park, and walk through the primeval forest to its walls, feeling Lymond's world wrap more tightly around me with every step. Some of the most contented moments of my life…

  27. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you Steve! 'Hangover' certainly seems the right way to describe it… I wasn't aware the books were also available on audiobooks. Who reads them?

    I've been evangelising to my friends about Dorothy Dunnett since I read “The Spring of the Ram” last year, but haven't had much success so far – still, I'm going to keep trying and hope for the best. “King Hereafter” is on my list of books to read in the near future, but I think I need to reread “Macbeth” first so that I have that fresh in my mind, even if the one doesn't rely on the other all that heavily.

  28. The Idle Woman says:

    'Anonymous': first of all, you have some seriously literate grocery shops in your part of the world. I live for the day when my supermarket decides to stop stocking 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and decides to stock the entire works of Dorothy Dunnett instead… 🙂

    And how wonderful to have such a perfect place to go and just walk and absorb it all. I'm very envious! Isn't it great how books and places can sometimes go together so well? Thanks to “Queen's Play” I now have a renewed urge to go to Blois and Amboise (which I already wanted to see because of the Leonardo da Vinci connection). And I confess that I looked up Sevigny on Google Maps the other day and then got very excited because it actually exists.

  29. The Idle Woman says:

    I'm clearly going to have to read that book again! The subtleties completely passed me by the first time. I think I was so thoroughly caught up in Jerott's angst that I missed everything else. And I admit that I still don't really understand the significance of Venceslas in “The Ringed Castle”. When I found out that Guzel had hired him, I assumed he was some kind of spy, which is why Lymond gets rid of him at one point. But then I wondered whether – because Lymond hadn't fallen for her charms yet – Guzel was testing him by putting a pretty boy in his path to see what happened. I'm still not entirely decided on that whole issue. And that reminds me – I never did find out the backstory of Guzel! Who was she, really, in the end? If I remember correctly, all we have are hints.

    Semi-colons always count. The test with long sentences is whether you *notice* they're long. I never found myself consciously thinking that any of Dunnett's sentences were long, which suggests that I was so borne along on the story that I didn't have time to criticise the form. I've read two books of Proust, on the other hand, and the long sentences are so evident there that I find myself getting breathless when I read them – desperate for a full-stop. Dunnett 1 – Proust 0.

  30. The Idle Woman says:

    It must have been absolutely amazing to hear her reading from the books – and what a perfect scene to choose (one of my favourites, in case you hadn't noticed!). She must have been a fascinating lady and so learned in practically every field. It's truly daunting to imagine how one person can accumulate the knowledge necessary to write these books (and the Niccolo series) with such authority, every detail plausible. Quite extraordinary.

    Peter O'Toole… who would have thought it? I don't quite see that, but this is probably because whenever I think of Peter O'Toole he's on a camel, shouting, 'Aqaba!' I imagine Lymond as having more warmth than Peter O'Toole, more of a sense of mischief about him; but I can't think of a single actor who would encapsulate that but also really convince as a military leader. Hmm… there's a challenge. Name your actors here…

  31. The Idle Woman says:

    I don't think I would be able to bear lending one of these books to anyone, just in case I never got it back! The warehouse is indeed a great scene – although I have to say, Catherine, that I was rather alarmed by the 'break him' episode. It just felt a bit too much like 'kick him while he's down' 🙂

    That sounds like perfect listening music, by the way. I find it hard to listen to music while I'm reading something as all-absorbing as that, but in-between reading sessions I did listen to quite a lot of Shirley Rumsey's Italian Renaissance lute music – although in fact that's probably more appropriate for Niccolo than Lymond.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Leander, I have never been tempted to read Proust 🙂 I have to say I didn't get stuck in DD's long sentences when reading her novels: the finding long sentences was an activity I enjoyed one day for fun! It's also fun to find a lovely, witty descriptive sentence that has little to do with the movement of the story.

    Guzel is a rather shadowy figure in some ways for sure, as are some of her motives. She seems to be her own woman and yet she seems also to be part of the Dame's intrigue. Lymond seems (there's that word again) to admire her but I felt she could have used her influence and arts in better ways and certainly at times to have prevented troubles for our protaganists. I don't really like her but may be being too harsh. Oh, I do love these books. Caroline :>

  33. Catherine says:

    “Music, the knife without a hilt….”

    I'm listening right now to Josh Groban sing “Remember” (from Troy), and Francis' line popped into my head, as haunting as Groban's ballad. My books are in storage, so will somebody please remind me — did Lymond mutter the line in that exquisite scene with Phillipa after his engagement party for Catherine, or was it during some entertainment he gave as Voevoda?


  34. The Idle Woman says:

    Catherine, it is in the scene with Philippa after the engagement party – I've just checked. I don't know this song by Groban (although if it's in Troy, I'll no doubt recognise it), so I might just pop off to YouTube to listen to it for myself. 🙂

  35. Anonymous says:

    I've been an ardent Dunnett follower for over 20 year. I re-read the series at least once a year. Though I get new insights every time I read, somethings still remain a mystery. For eg: the three women who were half way towards becoming Lymond's friends…”..of the women, two had died and he had cut himself off from the other.”
    My guess is the two who had died are Christian and Sybilla (the latter, only because he believes that she is dead, at that moment in time) and the third is Phillipa. Am I right?

    • Heather says:

      To reply to Anonymous’s curiosity as to whether Phillipa was the third woman (although I’m sure Anonymous is long off this thread by now), I believe the one he had cut off was Phillipa’s mother Kate. Lymond had developed a strong bond with her early on, to the point where even Phillipa thought Kate was the one he had fallen in love with. I was actually surprised at how much Kate had disappeared. I kept expecting her to turn up again in France in Checkmate.

  36. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello! For the three women, I had imagined that the two who died were Christian and Oonagh – and yes, I would agree with you that the third must be Philippa. But your idea about Sibylla is an interesting one… though I imagine Lymond would have thought about her in a slightly different context to the others. An interesting point.

    I so admire readers who get through the whole series once a year. I am considering my first reread at the moment, after two years, and scarcely dare to begin, because I know that all other books will seem woefully inadequate for weeks afterwards (not that I'll have time to fit in any other books, of course) 😉

  37. Anonymous says:

    Hi, Thanks for the reply. I agree with you that after Dunnett, no other writer matches up to her. 'Woefully inadequate” sums it up quite nicely.

    About Sybilla..I felt that his deeper relationships with the women his life were based on the intellect as well respect and warmth…though Sybilla is his mother, the better part of his youth was influenced by her teaching…her love of poetry and music that she imparted to him..his friendships seem to have been based on that .The equation with Christian was definitely so, the meeting of two very intelligent and well read minds..I didn't get that feeling with Oonagh, somehow….though she was doubtlessly extremely intelligent, she didn't come across as an intellectual on par with Christian, Sybilla and definitely, Phillipa.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Peter O'Toole is definitely the closest to my Lymond; the intensity of the Lawrence role, balanced with his wit and graciousness and his comedic timing in other roles. (I am not the anonymous who has posted above, but that is the only choice it has given me, so …)

  39. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for your amazingly perceptive review as well as all the comments. I discovered The Game of Kings in 1980 when an acquaintance gave me the book. “I can't follow this; perhaps you can make sense of it”, she said. I was captured immediately and have reported to all my friends that I have been having an affair with Lymond for these 34 years. In 1995 I lent all six books to my daughter's newly minted fiance, also an avid reader of quality historical fiction. All his books, along with his collection of vintage model airplanes, washed into the Gulf of Mexico when Hurricane Opal destroyed much of Fort Walton Beach! I was reminded when I read your comment about fearing to lend your copies of the Lymond Chronicles. As the books were, temporarily, out of print, I scoured used books stores to replace them and discovered the Johnson Johnson series. I'm proud to say that I own all of the Dunnett books as well Elspeth Morrison's companions. (Sometimes those are fun to read independently and be reminded of the wonderful scenes in which the allusions appear!) I reread all the books every few years and recently recalled that I have never seen a discussion on Kuzum's paternity. Should we assume that he was Gabriel's son? I always thought so, until the end of Checkmate when the subject arises again. “Marthe knew.” I wonder what she knew!

  40. Carolyn says:

    I don’t know who still may be reading this since the last post was more than 4 years ago, but I finished the series about two days ago (having rushed into Checkmate right after Ringed Castle) and so my hangover is still raging. Praise be the internet for helping to nurse me through it! It probably doesn’t help that my nerves are shot from total lack of sleep and foregoing real meals so I could keep on reading (you all know how it is).

    So a heartfelt THANK YOU to Idle Woman for this wonderful post and all the commenters to it! My mother read this series many years ago and was nudging me to read them too, but it was not my time. She passed away in 2009 and I soooo wish I had been able to discuss them with her; I’ll forgive myself someday. But in the meantime I will keep trolling the web for insights, revelations and any other Lymond nuggets.

  41. Colinne says:

    Thank you for your analysis of the book, which is magistral. I just finished the series myself this morning at 7 a.m, after 19 days and many sleepless nights of near continuous reading (interrupted only by trivialities like working and eating) since I first opened “The Game of Kings”.

    I don’t really have the words to tell how that book made me feel, exept to describe the last time a story had such an impact on me: when I was 17 years old, I spend a whole day and night reading the 7th tome of Harry Potter for the first time, incapable of putting it down until I had reached the last word of the epilogue. At that time, the Harry Potter novels had been my favourite book series since I could read. My mother bought me the first tome at age seven, and, though I read a lot even back then, and tended to read books I loved several time, this one the only one I systematically went back to, several times a year, sometimes finishing them and going straight back to the begining, waiting for the new one to come out. I had waited ten years for the last book, and I had built up so much of my imagination and taste in litterature around this story, that I knew the ending would change me somehow. It was terrifying and exilarating at the same time.

    To be absolutely clear: I’m not comparing the two series, which have very little in common, but rather the impact they had on me. I had not expected to feel that way for a book serie ever again. Firstly, because I am not a child anymore and I am much less passionate now than I was then in my loves and dislike. Secondly, while HP was a part of my life for a very long period, I did not have to wait at all to finish the Lymond Chronicles: I had all six books of it waiting for me from the start, having bought the integral. So I only spent 19 days with Francis Crawford, vs a decade with Harry Potter, but it was definitively enough to fall in love.

    I went in fully exepecting to like the Lymond Chronicles, but not at all that it would become one of my favourite series ever. Now the only thing left to do is to go back to the begining, and read it again, while taking the time to fully understand all the references and intricate plot point that I have surely missed the first time. Can’t wait !

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