Warning: this post contains spoilers for Dorothy Dunnett’s Checkmate, as well as other novels in the Lymond Chronicles.
It’s always a little bittersweet to come to the end of a series, especially if its one in which you grew truly fond of the characters. Plus, the end of a series is where all of the questions are answered and the open story-lines are tied up in some fashion, so the final book in a series can in many cases make or break the entire series. Getting the endings right is at least as important as getting the beginnings right. Did Checkmate give a great ending to a great series? Yes, yes it did.
I talked in my review of The Ringed Castle about how much I love Dorothy Dunnett’s writing. It’s the sort of book that makes me want to sit down and read a thesaurus so that I can speak as eloquently in real time as her writing is fluid, and as her characters infallibly do, even though I realize that if I spoke like that on a regular basis, my actual effectiveness of communication would be reduced spectacularly, not least because most people wouldn’t know fifty percent of the words I use. I will admit that part of the reason I enjoyed this series so much is because of my peculiar love affair with the English language.
Although still historical fiction, unlike The Ringed Castle this book didn’t really feel like historical fiction. Unlike most of the other books in the series, there wasn’t a major, underlying geopolitical plot to drive the whole story forward. Instead, this story was more personal, more tightly focused on Crawford and his personal dramas. In fact, from any other author, and without the context built up in the previous five books, I’m not entirely certain that this book would have been enjoyable. An entire book about the family and personal dramas of the main characters? Not exactly my typical cup of tea. But after following Crawford and his companions for five books, and experiencing and feeling all of the struggles he’s had while still managing to be spectacularly successful, sacrificing himself again and again for what he believes in, this keystone was precisely what the series needed to tie everything together.
There is dark, grimly realistic element in all of the books, and that was especially clear in Checkmate, but where another author would have gone into gruesome detail about what horrible things transpired, Dunnett prefers to allude and leave the imagery, and even the precise details of what transpired, to the reader. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it works perfectly for these books, given their historical setting at the style of prose.
Yes, Crawford is a conflicted, tortured man, despite his successes and apparent brilliance. His depiction as a character has always fascinated me, but in Checkmate his struggles and decisions and consequences resonated deeply, handled beautifully by the author. The ending, and indeed the entire last book, were not at all what I was expecting, and that was also exactly what was needed, an unconventional ending for this unconventional hero. Not least because that unconventional ending involved him actually achieving some semblance, at least, of happiness, which I was convinced throughout most of the book would not be his fate.
I wouldn’t call this one my favorite of the series, but it was by far the most impactful for me, and it was the ending this amazing series demanded.