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.