What I’m Reading: Dorothy Dunnett – The Ringed Castle

After the heated intensity of Pawn in Frankincense, this fifth (and penultimate) volume of the Lymond Chronicles comes across as cool and subdued – which might be owing to it taking place in the more temperate climates of Russia and England instead of the sun-drenched Middle East of the previous novel. This does not mean, however, that The Ringed Castle is not an exciting novel, or that tension and emotions would not run high, quite to the contrary.

Things do start somewhat slowly, but that is a welcome breather after the events that concluded Pawn in Frankincense and which are likely to have left the reader reeling and possibly somewhat numb with shock, even several months after reading that novel. But while there is a distinct shift in mood, plotwise events pick up almost right where the previous novel ended, with Philippa returning home. She is even more of a presence here than in the preceding instalment, her narrative weight almost equal to Lymond’s, and at least to my taste, considerably less annoying. Although it has to be said that for the first time in the series I found Lymond neither cringe- nor eyeroll-inducing through the course of a whole novel – I am not sure whether by this volume Dorothy Dunnett has matured as a writer, or whether Lymond has matured as a character but his usual melodramatic histrionics seem to be completely absent from The Ringed Castle. But maybe I am just getting used to him…

Lymond is trying to wipe the slate of his life clean, break with his past and start over, and to that purpose he is moving as far away from everything he knows – and that knows him – as possible and beginning a career as military advisor to Tsar Ivan of Russia (also known to later generations as Ivan the Terrible). But of course  his past will not stay quiet and will not let him rest, embroiling not only him but also Phillipa who at the same time is starting to begin her own life at the court of Queen Mary of England (also known to later generations as Bloody Mary). The story relentlessly gathers momentum as events unfold, and what began slowly ends in an action-packed, fast-moving finale that, if not quite as heart-wrenching as the ending of Pawn in Frankincense, ends on an almost tragic note that does not bode well at all for the next, concluding volume of the Lymond  Chronicles.

The Ringed Castle, like the other volumes in the series,  is a true historical novel: The characters are not modern people placed in front of a historical wallpaper to act out 20th century drama. Dunnett does not attempt to make her characters familiar, strictly refuses to give them motivations that our contemporary psychologies could relate to. Instead, they are steeped in their period, in and of their time, and Dorothy Dunnett throughout maintains a respectful distance towards them, showing us her protagonist Lymond never other than from an outside perspective, and taking care to keep some residue of opacity even for those characters from whose point of view she describes events – we might be as close to them as we ever get to anyone in the series, but they still grow never quite familiar, never wholly transparent to us. This is what gives the novels their occasionally elliptic feel, as if we readers were being withheld essential pieces of information and need to piece things together by ourselves. We are indeed missing something here, because we are not Renaissance men and women, and the author never lets us forget that.

Having accomplished this much would be quite enough of a feat for any author who of course is herself not contemporary to the Renaissance, but Dorothy Dunnett does not stop there, and what makes her writing (apart from its immense learning that yet never weakens the stunning beauty of it) truly astonishing is that even as she keeps her characters at a distance from the readers, she still manages to make us care for them (yes, even for annoying Lymond), to weave  a plot that, even as we struggle to follow all its intricacies, makes us excited and lets our hearts beat faster, to move us with the fate of characters that, even as we struggle to comprehend what drives their actions, touches us  and moves us to laughter and tears. Only very few writers of historical novels manage to appeal to our modern sensitivities without compromising on their representation of the past, but Dorothy Dunnett does so in unparalleled splendour and her Lymond Chronicles are a must-read for anyone even marginally interested in historical fiction and what it can achieve.

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23 comments

  1. I read your blog with interest. I have read the Lymond series twice and both times I cried when I got to the last page. The chartacters of both Lymond and Phillipa do mature, particularl in the last two novels.

  2. Thank you for commenting. 🙂 – This is my first time through the series (I really should have read them years ago, another of those missed chances…) but the signs are very much pointing towards things not ending well. Likely will read Checkmate in the next few weeks, and then of course will post here about it.

  3. Indeed, something I failed to mention in my post is just how incredibly vivid Dorothy Dunnett’s descriptions are, in particular in those parts of The Ringed Castle that take place in Russia. People seem to like those less, but I think her depiction of life in Russia at the time really makes it almost come alive for the reader. So I’m not surprised at all. 😉

  4. Read Checkmate sooner rather than later, it is sooo poignant. I would hate to spoil it for you, but please do blog on how you feel when you have read it.

    I read the series the first time much at leisure with other books in between… then the 2nd time when I was ill in bed and straight through with no breaks. Despite my illness I couldn’t put the light out when I was reading Checkmate until I was totally exhausted. I simply devoured it then!

    I lent the series to a friend who read them back to back and felt the same. Have you read her “Niccolo” series?

  5. My reading of the Lymond Chronicles has been a bit erratic, it has been several years since I read Game of Kings, with a long gap after the second volume, with the remaining novels following at increasingly shorter intervals, so I’m expecting to start on Checkmate soon. There are just so many other books to read…

    I have not read the Niccolo series yet but bought them all as e-books while reading The Ringed Castle and plan on tackling them before too long… hopefully in the next five years.

  6. This is my least favourite of the 6-book series (which I adore) although certain key events take place, and indeed, Philippa matures into the heroine we would all like to be. I think the unfamiliarity of Russia was a barrier for me not an enticement. And I have never been able to understand why Lymond went with Guzel (yes,yes, she is “kingmaker” and chose Francis). In PinF, book 4, he asked Mikal why the children were brought back and was told “she” (Guzel surely) ordered it so. The children had escaped and were safe. It was a cold and callous undertaking to – what? – ensure Lymond recognised how much he was capable of sacrificing to rid the world of Gabriel and his kind of evil? Still, there is so much that is wonderful about this book and I have never met any characters that I have cared about as much as I do the Crawfords and Somervilles. I have to say, I can’t believe you find Francis annoying??? Get ready for Checkmate – I have re-read it every year for more than 25 years. No book and no writer compares to the late, great Dorothy Dunnett. How we miss her! caroline mc

  7. Well, I have not read all of the series yet, so cannot really which one I like least, but from your comment I assume we probably agree that even a (comparatively) weaker Lymond novel is by far preferrable to the best efforts of most other writers of historical fiction.

    As for why Lymond follows Güzel, I think he is just trying to get away from his former life as far as he possibly can, and she offers him an easy road to a place where he can start anew (or so he thinks). Also, this being a bit more interpretative on my part, it quite fits in the general tendency of his towards self-abasement, which has been quite prevalent in all of the previous novels and which is one of the reasons why he annoys me so much.

    Not necessarily the self-abasement in and of itself but that he then goes on and bloody brags about it, taking great care to let everyone know just how terribly misunderstood he is. It is all his melodramatic posturing that is grating on my nerves, his casting himself in the role of the tragic hero. And I find it quite signficant that the more he actually does become a tragic figure (starting with Pawn in Frankincense) the less posturing there is – it makes me suspect that Dorothy Dunnett might very well have intended him to be unlikeable (except to someone like Philippa who combines a keen perception with an almost all-encompassing empathy).

    I’m looking greatly forward to Checkmate, but also dread it a bit, not just because it is the end of the series (there’s still Niccolo after all, not to mention possible re-readings) but also because of the nagging certainty that things are not going to end well at all.

    1. Yes, absolutely agreed that DD is peerless in the genre. Also agree that Lymond has tendencies towards self-abasement but don’t agree that he “casts himself in the role of tragic hero” or that takes a lot of care to make sure people know how misunderstood he is. (Would be interested to know what the other readers think?) Yes, there’s melodrama – and I have to warn you that parts of Checkmate will test your patience with our tortured hero – but there is so much exhilaration awaiting you as well: the chase across the rooftops of Blois and so much more! Really envy anyone who is reading tehLymiknd chronicles for the first time. (Avoid spoilers like the plague – you may or may not like the ultimate resolution but you don’t get there til the very last pages.)

  8. The book I liked least was the first of the series “Game of Kings”. If I had read it first I may not have gone further, but I picked up the 2nd of the series and read it first, not realising until half way through that it was a series, so I went back and read Game of Kings

    My set are so battered I don’t think they’d stand another reading. I see they are available on Kindle now, but they are not cheap.

    The Niccolo series is quite hard to understand IMHO, there’s a lot of plotting and double think and sometimes it can be hard to follow. However I didn’t read them back-to-back but over a number of years. Perhaps reading straight through would help with this aspect.

  9. @ Caroline – Oh, I definitely will not be kept by anything from reading Checkmate – well, except possible my insanely huge TBR list; but I’m optimistic and hope that I will get around to it in the next few weeks. Watch this space, as they say. 😉

    @ Patti – I think I can see where you’re coming from, Game of Kings is indeed rather different from the others – you can see that it is a first novel, and like with many first novels, it has a tendency to want to do too many things at once which ends up making it very dense indeed. I won’t claim to have understood everything that was going in there (or even in the following novels of the series) but I generally try to not let that hamper my enjoyment.

  10. how exciting for you to be ‘finding Lymond’ at this time – I also started QP first (from my library) and went back to read Kings while waiting for the rest to be published. I just re-read PinF on my way back on planes from Istanbul – what an amazing trip we DD fans had, and how wonderful to read the novel with realistic mental pictures of the ‘Constantinople’ sites. Checkmate has long been my fav of the entire series (although I’ve always thought PinF would make a dynamic feature film all by itself) – so please put off the rest of your TBR list and get CM under your belt – you’ll have much to blog about then! :))

    1. I am lucky that a friend has just gifted me the whole series onto my Kindle. I shall be interested to read it from a different perspective. I first read it as a 30 year old in an unhappy relationship and now I shall read it as a 66 year old with no less romantic tendencies but a solid 30 year relationship with a person I love… yes, it IS romantic novel, but it’s one with intelligence.

  11. @Bski – Thank you! – And yes, I’m still looking forward to reading Checkmate, should not be much longer now, just waiting until I have the leisure to read it with as few interruptions as possible.

    @Patti – That should indeed be interesting, and I hope that you’ll enjoy it just as much from your changed viewpoint. 🙂

  12. Interesting discussion about Lymond and self-abasement… I didn’t pick up on that, but I completely see where you’re coming from. It was actually quite a revelation when I realised, probably back in Pawn in Frankincense, that he wasn’t the arrogant creature I’d always taken him to be, but someone who was instead taking on a lot of the responsibility for those around him precisely by shutting them out – and thus keeping them away from harm. Readers seem to be split fairly equally between those who find him annoying and those who don’t: I really disliked him in Game of Kings, but then developed a bit of a fiction crush on him in Queens’ Play which saw me through the rest of the series 🙂

    Just to prepare you for Niccolo: while one (generally) comes to know Lymond more and like him more over the course of the series, one comes to know Niccolo more and (perhaps?) like him less. They’re superficially similar but there are a lot of deeper differences, so if you do decide to proceed with Niccolo, I’ll be interested to see what you think about him as a protagonist.

    Oh, and you are absolutely right in what you say about the characters being slightly unfamiliar because they are so much of their time – and that they feel like fully rounded figures rather than contemporary people who just happen to be standing against the wallpaper of the past. Just wish there were more writers of historical fiction who could carry that off as Dunnett can…

    Forgive me for working through your Dunnett reviews backwards… 🙂

  13. After reading Checkmate, I have made my peace with Lymond, and am now convinced that he is supposed to be unlikeable at the start, so that Dunnett can show his development intro a truly heroic character over the course of the series. The most interesting part in a re-read of the series (should I ever get around to it) will likely be finding out how I’ll react to his character knowing where he’ll end up. I’m almost tempted to give it a try right away, but there is, of course, Niccolo, who you got me curious to start reading soon now…

  14. Am just finishing The Ringed Castle, and Lymond has called Phillipa, ‘Yunitsa’, which he tells her means heifer. But I cannot recall the significance of the reference. Can anyone direct me to earlier discussions relevant to that word?

    I realize this article was posted a few years ago and have no idea if my question can still be put up.

  15. Phillipa talks to D’Harcourt a bit later and they speak briefly about Lymond calling her ‘Yunitsa’. D’Harcourt affirms that it means ‘heifer’ but “abandoned the subject without informing her how much more it meant” (p 499 of my book). I assume this indicates some earlier reference or discussion of the word, and wish I could remember what it is. But as you say, it surely means something heartfelt and tender.

  16. Yes indeed that helps……yunitsa was how the Tsar was known, on occasion, to refer to his wife. Hopefully he used it as an expression of his affection. Thanks!

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