Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Lymond Chronicles By Dorothy Dunnett - The Beginning

I recently embarked upon a re-read of the uncontested favorite-of-my heart historical fiction series, The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.  I hadn't read them since I first picked them up back in College. I know it was college when I read them first because I have a clear memory of being on a plane on a class trip to Belize and asking around to see whether any of my classmates spoke French because Dunnett had dropped one of her infamous untranslated, non-English passages at a particularly crucial moment in the story.  No one spoke French.  Thankfully this was one passage she did in fact translate, several pages later just when my franticness to know what it meant was at its highest pitch.  Dunnett's manipulative and brilliant like that.

I'm not sure why I waited so long to do a re-read but I think it had something to do with remembering that reading the series was intense and I was afraid that maybe my youthful impressionable self was more easily wowed by the series and it wouldn't be as good.  Would the books still appeal to my middle-aged curmudgeonly heart?  So as not to keep you in suspense. Yes, they most certainly, definitely and heartily did.  Maybe even more so.

 Now I'm left with the Dilemma with a capital D of how and what to write about the series.  I do feel compelled to write about the books but it's a huge and daunting task   Do a brief google search for the series and you stumble upon articles gushing about this series and its near perfection.  It does not inspire tame emotions.  Also, is there a way for me to talk about these books without spoilers so as to convince folks to read them while still being able to express all my tumultuous thoughts and feelings?  In the end that is why I decided to begin with this introductory post.  This will be a  mostly spoiler free retrospective of the entire series and then I will do individual posts for each of the books that will be a free for all.

The six books in The Lymond Chronicles cover 11 years in the life of one Francis Crawford of Lymond, Scottish nobleman, as he navigates the political intrigues of Europe, Malta, Turkey, and Russia in the middle of the 16th century.  If you know your Tudor history, at the start of the series young King Edward is on the throne of England, is succeeded around book three or four by Queen Mary and ends as Elizabeth I takes the throne in 1558.  All the books have titles alluding to the game of chess in a not-so-subtle nod to the complexity and trickiness of navigating European politics of this era.  By the time you finish the series you will feel as if you've lived through it all and understand all the intricacies of the complex web of alliances and successions and war-making.

It is a HUGE canvas and Dunnett delves in and exposes it all.   At the same time there are so many details, casually referred to by the characters which I think lends the series an air of authenticity not easily found in Historical Fiction. I think Dunnett's greatest achievement (out of many, many achievements), is that despite the epic-ness of the saga, it all feels very grounded, steeped in the everyday lives of both ordinary and extraordinary people.  Characters interact and talk with one another, using renaissance allusions, multiple languages, and on an intellectual level far beyond my ken, but the interactions feel genuine and familiar.  It feels like you are having the rare opportunity to travel in time and be a fly on the wall during the renaissance.  One review I was reading made the point that the characters for the most part all genuinely think and act like 16th century people, with 16th century reactions that aren't always easy for modern readers to understand. It's like Dunnett was able to immerse herself in what a person during that time would be.  I think this is totally spot on and is why the book feels so authentically 16th century and also so natural.

So what are each of the books about?  They are about Francis Crawford of Lymond and he is the tie that binds the books together in a long and epic tale.  But each book also has its own adventure, each succeeding in developing Lymond as a character and also slowly revealing more and more about him because he manages to remain pretty elusive.  His motivations are usually only revealed through the speculation of his friends....but I am getting sidetracked. The plots in short are thus:

The Game of Kings:  Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter returns to Scotland after a 4-5 year absence and proceeds to start wreaking havoc.  He was exiled to France as a teen for allegedly passing secrets to the English and he has spent at least 2 of the interim years as a galley slave.  Hence, he comes back a 21 year old, brilliant, worldly, cynical and deadly and no one knows what his motivations are.

Queen's Play:  Two years have passed since The Game of Kings, during which Lymond has been kicking it in Scotland and driving everyone crazy. The Dowager Regent Queen of Scotland (Mary of Guise) recruits Lymond to travel to France to protect her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, who is living at the French Court and whose life is being threatened.  Lymond does this in his own special and spectacular way while navigating the complicated interplay between England, Scotland, France and Ireland.

The Disorderly Knights: Lymond's exploits have attracted the attention of the Knights of Malta, God's Soldiers against the Turk, and everyone is particularly anxious for Lymond and Graham Reid Mallet aka Gabriel to meet. Everybody is sure that these two highly charismatic dudes will become BFFs.  After some fighting with knights in Tripoli and elsewhere, Lymond returns to Scotland, with Gabriel in tow, to start his own mercenary force.

Pawn in Frankincense: Lymond has a son!  Who is lost and probably in danger in the world.  His search for the bairn leads him eventually to the court of Suleiman the Great of the Ottoman Empire with a strange band of companions in his wake.

The Ringed Castle:  Devastated by the events of the previous book, Lymond runs as far away as he can - to Russia and Ivan the Terrible where he sets out to build the wackadoodle Tsar his own army.  Political machinations force him back to England however and the court of Queen Mary.

Checkmate: Lymond is intent on going back to Russia, but his friends think this is a really bad idea so they kidnap him to France where the French King blackmails him into helping lead the French army into battles against Spain and England. At the same time an investigation is being done into who Lymond really is and what his origins were. He is now close to 30 and has had one hell of a decade.  :)

There are so many things that are brilliant about this series - the intricate and complex plots, the clever humor, the set-piece scenes that will blow your mind, the erudition, the feeling, already mentioned, of being immersed in and getting an in depth understanding of the 16th Century. Some of the plots, if described all plain like, would make you roll your eyes at the utter melodrama and unbelievability and yet, Dunnett reels you in and ties up your emotions so thoroughly into the action that you hardly notice the preposterousness.   I mean, we're talking about Francis Crawford of Lymond, late Master of Culter, Comte de Sevigny, Voivoda Bolshoi.  Anything is possible.

And that is of course Dunnett's secret weapon and crowning jewel - Lymond.  He is the very epitome of a renaissance romantic hero but he is dark and complex and quite frankly a little hard to take at times.  But you can't look away.  He is not a character I have a crush on or would even want to meet.  He'd be incredibly intimidating, with his quick wit that leaves 99% of the room in a whirl, and he is not easy on his friends.  He's a masterpiece character that I could analyze until the end of time.  He's a 16th century James Bond/Rock Star/Dumas Hero.  One article compares him to Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, which I at first rebelled against but it fits  - his sharp wits that outsmart everyone which he keeps hidden behind a playful, insouciant, sometimes goofy facade.

Lymond started life as a slight, rather delicate-looking boy, blond and blue-eyed, who loved music and books.  So a great big old nerd.  That deceptive exterior hid a will of iron and a strength that is put to the test and honed when he becomes a prisoner of war at 16.  Being passed around Europe and spending two years as a galley slave. When Lymond appears again 5 years later he has become tall and handsome, he can fight, speak several languages, and he has become an effortless leader of men.  He's learned how to hide his feelings and presents a face to the world that is unconcerned and sardonically amused.
“To the men exposed to his rule Lymond never appeared ill: he was never tired; he was never worried, or pained, or disappointed, or passionately angry. If he rested, he did so alone; if he slept, he took good care to sleep apart. “—I sometimes doubt if he’s human,” said Will, speaking his thought aloud. “It’s probably all done with wheels.”

I ran across this video of violinist David Garrett a couple of weeks ago and it may have just been the fact that I was in the middle of a re-read but it totally gave me Lymond vibes.  First because Lymond loves music above most everything else and is a talented musician. Then the music and persona of Garrett  - the furious, riotous music coupled with the rock-star look and feel, the adoring crowd.  And the blond hair:).
Lymond has the fortitude to make the hard choice and do the despicable thing if it is the right thing to do  for the greater good but it does tear him up inside.  And it is that core of moral fortitude and self-loathing that really makes the men and women fall in love with him in droves.  He is in control, he is always right, he has boundless energy, he will do what it takes but he is in fact human.  He is more at home with women than men.  He's a pain in the ass and he is brilliant.  You could never hope for a better ally but he won't be quiet about it.  Go big or go home could be his motto and yet his mind is endlessly perceptive and subtle.  Are you getting the picture?  Some of my favorite quotes by or about him:
“It was one of the occasions when Lymond asleep wrecked the peace of mind of more people than Lymond awake.” 
“Lymond's behaviour, as always, went to the limits of polite usage and then hurtled off into space.”  
 “Today,’ said Lymond, ‘if you must know, I don’t like living at all. But that’s just immaturity boggling at the sad face of failure. Tomorrow I’ll be bright as a bedbug again.”
 “What’s wrong? Has Francis been rude? Then you must try to overlook it. I know you wouldn’t think so, but he is thoroughly upset by XXXX's death; and when Francis is troubled he doesn’t show it, he just goes and makes life wretched for somebody.” 
“He regards boredom, I observe, as the One and Mighty Enemy of his soul. And will succeed in conquering it, I am sure—if he survives the experience.” 
 “Jerott, for God’s sake! Are you doing this for a wager?’ said Lymond, his patience gone at last. ‘What does anyone want out of life? What kind of freak do you suppose I am? I miss books and good verse and decent talk. I miss women, to speak to, not to rape; and children, and men creating things instead of destroying them. And from the time I wake until the time I find I can’t go to sleep there is the void—the bloody void where there was no music today and none yesterday and no prospect of any tomorrow, or tomorrow, or next God-damned year.”
 “And if there’s no trouble, you’ll make it,’ offered Will Scott, his eyes bright, his cheeks red. ‘No. At the moment,’ affirmed Lymond grimly, ‘I am having truck with nothing less than total calamity.” 
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Lymond is the star but there are many, many other characters to love or to love to hate. In fact one of the other characters is my very favorite, but this person is a bit of a spoiler, so I'll save it for the individual book reviews.

Finally, this series is one of my very favorite romances.  If you are anti-romance, don't worry, these are not romances except in the classical sense but they do have a central building romance that is slowly developed, fraught and so, so perfect.  Almost everything about it. Perfect.

As I mentioned above, I first read this series in College.  At the time I found it baffling and wonderful.  My impressions were that I only understood about 70% of what was happening in any given book and that most of the text was untranslated French or some other language and yet I was still so completely captivated and obsessed.  Every time I have recommended the series in the intervening years, I have warned the recommendee that book one is almost incomprehensible but just soldier through and it will pay off.

And now?  If anything this re-read has illustrated to me how much I have matured as a reader.  I think it was one of the first really complex and authentic historical fiction books I had read.  I was baffled by the Scots dialect in book one and I couldn't keep any of the lairds straight nor follow half of the European political machinations.  This time around, this was not even close to the problem it was the first time around.  I've been exposed to so much more literature and culture in the intervening 20 years that many of those struggles I had with comprehension in my initial reading were gone.  The result was a completely different but equally delightful reading experience.  I was able to appreciate the plotting even more and grew attached to side characters who I was kind of muddled about first go round.  Without a doubt, some of the esoteric allusions still fly over my head and there is a LOT of untranslated French in here, lol but it was not nearly so frustrating - those things give the books ambience and fun detail to dig into if you wish.  It's erudite and scholarly but to an experienced reader, incredibly addictive reading!

Also different this go round was that I listened to all the books but the last one.  This was a fun way to consume the books though I don't think they quite got the right narrators.  The first book was narrated by Samuel Gillies, who was obviously an older gentleman with Shakepearean training who was ALL wrong for telling the story of the very youthful Lymond.  The narrator for books 2 through 5 was Andrew Napier, he was better but still read Lymond without a lot of inflection or character.  His accents were great and his reading was fine but not what it could be.

Finally, so that I'm being fair, was there anything about these books I didn't love this second go round?  Sadly but honestly, yes.  My feminist reading glasses which have been honed over the years didn't love some things that went down.  They are spoilers so I won't mention them here but will mention them in the individual book reviews.  The main one involves Lymond and a young woman in book 3 for those of you who have read the books.  Dunnett actually does a great job, in the historical context, of revealing the strength and power of women overall, there are just a couple of incidents that I wish had been handled differently.  Also, and I am really sorry to say this, Lymond and his lady love kind of drove me up a wall in Checkmate.  This time around, I didn't entirely love how Dunnett handled the relationship even though I do love the final result.

Well, I think that's enough words even though it feels like I could go on and on. I haven't even really mentioned how funny the books are.  Laugh out loud hilarious at times.  In short, they have everything: political intrigue, swashbuckling adventure, laugh out loud wit, historical insights, romance and finally characters that will break your heart and make it overflow.  If you like historical fiction at all, you owe it to yourself to give this series a shot. It may not be for everyone, but if you are one of the lucky ones that connects, you are in for the ride of your life!

And please note that now that I've done a re-read and know just how many riches these books hold, this series holds the number one slot on my list of books I'd want on a desert island.  

Some other articles I love about Dunnett and Lymond

The Pinterest Page for The Lymond Chronicles (The fantasy castings on this page are fantastic)

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