The first three volumes in the Lymond Chronicles were nice, but with this fourth one the series takes a big leap in quality to being very good indeed. Part of the reason for this is admittedly somewhat rather subjective: Most of the novel takes place in the Ottoman Empire, and I have always had a huge fondness for everything related to Arabian Nights – so everything set against that or a similar background gets a big advance bonus from me.
More importantly though, the series’ hero Francis Lymond is considerably less annoying here than he was in the previous volumes – while I have never held with the view that a protagonist has to be likeable, Lymond’s “tragically misunderstood” posturing was just teeth-grindingly irritating and rather clashed with his exhaustively stated brilliance. There is almost nothing of his former emo attitude left in Pawn in Frankincense, which might be due to the character experiencing some real tragedy – in any case, while still not exactly likeable (which he might not supposed to be anyway) he appears considerably more mature in this volume.
Dunnett evokes the atmosphere of Renaissance Ottoman Empire very vividly – her prose is both rich in historical information and saturated with sensual detail. The compelling, complex plot leads all the way from Switzerland to Constantinople, and another thing which distinguishes Pawn in Frankincense is that while in previous novels in the Lymond Chronicles it was always pretty obvious that no matter how bad things seemed to look for our hero, he was always following some secret master plan that would make him emerge victorious in the end, there is no such certainty in Pawn in Frankincense – this time, it is the bad guy who pulls all of the strings, and Lymond has to struggle to keep up with him, which does not always manage successfully. The final confrontation, while it appears somewhat contrived and not particularly plausible, has a huge emotional impact and I don’t think anyone who read it is likely to ever forget it.