Desert Isle Keeper
The Lymond Chronicles
It is the 1540s. Suleiman the Magnificent is the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The tsar of Russia is a man who will someday be known as Ivan the Terrible. England is ruled by the boy-king Edward VI. Mary Queen of Scots is four, and she will be used as a pawn in the high-stakes game of politics between England, France, Spain, the papacy, and the Holy Roman Empire. As English armies march north toward Edinburgh, a rumor buzzes: Francis Crawford, the Master of Lymond, has returned to Scotland. Lymond betrayed Scotland to England years ago. Then, apparently a traitor to the bone, he turned on his English masters as well. He is an outlaw and a rogue, and there’s a price on his head on both sides of the border. Surely he would never come back – and if he did, whose side would he fight on?
That’s the situation that opens The Game of Kings, the first book of a massive, intense, action-packed, and tremendously rewarding historical series, The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. The series follows the adventures of Francis Crawford over a period of some ten years, during which time he is engaged in plots, assassinations, espionage, politics, war, sex, vengeance, desperation, love, and more.
In a way, the series is daunting. It consists of six fat books. The setting is a not-much-utilized period of history, in locations as diverse as Scotland, Russia, Northern Africa, and Constantinople. There are scads and scads of characters, both fictional and historical. The characters cheerfully say things in Latin, French (by which I mean old French – my high school classes didn’t help me much here), German, Italian – which are not translated for the reader. The plot is so serpentine that the reader must really pay attention just to keep track of what the heck is going on.
Not only that, the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, is uniquely talented in making people want to kill him – and that frequently included me.
In spite of those things, I have a prediction: if you’re willing to give yourself over to the seductive magic of The Lymond Chronicles, you will be sucked in. The series is simply bewitching. And the opportunity to get to know its infuriating hero is not to be passed up.
Lymond is handsome, brilliant, talented, a superb athlete, a gifted musician, a leader of men, a lover of women. Though this series is sometimes compared to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Francis Crawford is no Jamie Fraser. He is a true anti-hero: a character one grows to love in spite of the fact that he is not lovable. At all. Almost the first thing that Lymond does in The Game of Kings is attempt to burn his mother’s house down – and his mother, you understand, is in it at the time.
I don’t quite know how to describe Lymond, except to say that he is so charismatic, so intensely real, and he comes alive so vividly in the pages of these novels, that I found myself reacting to him as a man, not a character. Which meant that when he did things that upset the characters in the book, he also upset me. When Lymond is insulting, you sting. When he is cruel, you flinch. And he is insulting, condescending, and downright cruel much of the time.
But the reader gradually realizes that Lymond’s aggravating mannerisms are a series of masks, designed to distract attention away from the tormented and terribly sensitive man within. And so, by the same token, on the rare occasion when you see the man behind Lymond’s series of sneering masks – when he is kind to a child, or when he laughs at a joke – you get a little flush of pleasure. When he is as vicious to himself as he is to those around him, you ache for him. And when you learn the reasons for Lymond’s shocking misdeeds, you feel triumphant. You just knew there had to be a good reason for it, that time he stacked wood around his mother’s house and set in on fire. And you were right.
It takes a long time to get behind those masks, though, because in the 3,000 pages of this series, we see from Lymond’s point of view on maybe twenty of them. The rest of the time, we see Lymond through the eyes of the people around him – people who love him, serve him, are mocked by him, are disillusioned by him, try to kill him, discover they were wrong about him, decide they were right about him, and try to kill him again. The one emotion you will not experience if you read these books is indifference.
I don’t intend to give any sort of plot summary at all, because even the most mundane facts (Lymond’s age, for example) constitute spoilers. The books are as follows:
- The Game of Kings: in which Lymond returns to Scotland. Meanwhile, England invades, attempting to gain control of the four-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots.
- Queens’ Play: in which the young Queen of Scots is taken to France, where she is not safe. Lymond follows in disguise.
- The Disorderly Knights: Lymond goes to Malta, where the Noble Order of Knights Hospitaller of Saint John are in trouble. Lymond meets his nemesis.
- Pawn in Frankincense: Lymond travels across Europe to the Ottoman Empire, on a deadly mission of his own. This book has one of the most riveting and heartbreaking climaxes I have ever read.
- The Ringed Castle: Scathed by his experiences in the Ottoman Empire, Lymond goes to Russia, where he joins the court of Tsar Ivan. Lymond falls in love in this book.
- Checkmate: Back in France, Lymond is forced to face his demons, and meets his destiny.
For all their swashbuckling adventure and powerful emotion, The Lymond Chronicles are not perfectly satisfying in the romance-novel sense. Lymond is much too dark a character to be a true romantic hero, and we see too many of his horrifying actions. Lymond is an wounded, tormented character – so much so that he made me want to tell all those other tormented heroes to stop whining. Here is a man with something to be tormented about. Dunnett doesn’t shrink away from the consequences of this: Lymond’s nightmarish experiences have eaten at his soul, and have lead him to commit some very desperate acts, which we see in detail. Nevertheless, there is a very passionate love story here – Lymond falls in love with a woman who is every inch his match in courage, intelligence, and sheer adventurousness (he refers to her, with grudging respect, as “one of nature’s own Marco Polos”). Although there are some moments of absolutely heart-stopping romance between them, and they do get a happy ending, I worried that Lymond’s dark side might reemerge.
There are those who disagree with me on that point: author Jo Beverley, for one, who wrote a DIK review of Checkmate several years ago. And there are plenty of other reasons to read the series, even if you agree. Dunnett does a great job explaining the complexities of European politics during the Renaissance, and how a seemingly-insignificant country like Scotland fit in. The chase and action sequences are edge-of-your-seat exciting. There are moments that are hysterically funny (as when, in The Disorderly Knights, Lymond defeats a large enemy force with a flock of sheep). The dialogue is sparkling, and most of the foreign words and phrases can be gleaned from context or safely ignored. For those who like to absorb every detail, I recommend The Dorothy Dunnet Companion by Elspeth Morrison, an index of all the historical and literary references in Dunnett’s books – I didn’t have it the first time I read the series, but on subsequent readings it has been very helpful.
This is a true Desert Island Keeper – a work of fiction that I know I will want to re-read many times. Each time I do, I discover things I hadn’t noticed during past readings, so the experience grows richer with time. The Lymond Chronicles will devour good chunk of your life, but if you like great historical drama and amazing characters, don’t hesitate. It’s worth it.