Warning: this post contains spoilers for Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, including all books in the series.
At this point, I’m going to assume that you’ve already read my reviews for Checkmate and The Ringed Castle, so you should know that this review is going to talk about things like how beautiful Dorothy Dunnett’s writing is, how fascinating her tragic antihero is, and how seamlessly the historical context and geopolitical maneuvering is blended with the fictional story of Sir Francis Crawford comte de Lymond and Seveigny, because those characteristics were not unique to the final two books; they were the defining traits of the entire series. One day, I’ll have been doing this site long enough that I won’t have to shoehorn in reviews of the previous books in the series that I read before the site was up when I do these series reviews, but that isn’t today.
Usually, I have a clear favorite out of the books in a series, or at least a clear least favorite, but that isn’t the case here. Each book has things about it that make it superior to the others, and each also has some things about it which are surpassed in others. Sometimes, those are even the same thing, like in the case of Checkmate, which I could call the best book in the series, and also can’t call the best book of the series, because of the character-centric plot. In The Game of Kings, we have what I will call classic Lymond Chronicles: a western European historical context, an intricate plot that we don’t fully see until the end, and Crawford being amazing at everything except dealing with his family (well, that last can be carried across the whole series, really). It also has probably the best action scene in the whole series, in its climactic sword duel. Unfortunately, until the end we don’t get a very good grasp of Crawford’s motivations.
Queen’s Play follows up on the motivations that we finally discover near the end of the first book, where Crawford is willing to do just about anything for his beloved Scotland, including make himself out to be a reckless, womanizing drunkard (and it’s never entirely made clear whether or not he really is those things) in order to be a spy in France. It’s a political intrigue kind of plot so complex that the reader is never entirely certain whether the action is all part of the show, or if something is actually going wrong. Which is not a criticism: it’s a technique that Dunnett uses throughout the series, and which is part of what makes these books so fascinating.
Then, in The Disorderly Knights, Dunnett starts a more linked part of the series. Where the first two books could mostly stand on their own, the third and fourth are strongly linked, as are the fifth and sixth. This one starts to expand the series’ world, exposing us to other parts of historical Europe, and gives Crawford a distinctive enemy who might actually be his match in wit, rhetoric, intricate plotting, and pure skill…except he’s the bad guy. Exactly why he’s the bad guy is not entirely made clear, and in fact you don’t even know he’s the main antagonist until well into the book. Actually, if these stories didn’t turn so strongly on Crawford himself, some of the plotting would be really off-putting, but because it’s Francis Crawford, it works.
The fourth book brings Crawford’s evil twin (not actually twins) back, and this time we travel to eastern Europe, where there are Sultans and Seraglios. Although Crawford has been established before as a somewhat unreliable narrator, that hasn’t paid off until these last three books, starting with Pawn in Frankincense. Crawford is out to thwart his antagonist from doing…something. It’s not exactly clear, but he has Crawford’s child, and an identical child that’s the antagonist’s, and they chase the children across most of Europe. It is also in this book that we begin to see that Crawford is more than a little unstable. Yet of all the books, this one’s ending felt the most contrived, with a giant, living chess game? If there’s a weak link in the series, it’s probably this one.
There’s a reason that these are called the Lymond Chronicles, and it’s because of the simple fact that they are truly about Crawford (we won’t get into the fact that Lymond is actually a place, but Crawford often goes by it like it’s his last name – it sounds confusing, which it can be, but it’s also one of those great historical points to which the series is faithful). The first two books are more historical fiction, with Crawford serving as a sort of plot device to move the story along, while the rest of the series is more closely following him, with the history serving as a sort of stage setting. Yet it really is Crawford who makes the whole series so compelling. He’s kind of a hero, kind of an antihero. In the way of the hero, he’s astonishingly skilled at just about everything he does, and stands head and shoulders above most of the people he encounters. Yet he has the emotional arc of an antihero, including some significant self-destructive tendencies.
Which is why I am still struggling with the ending to Checkmate. Crawford, in the end, gets a happy ending, and as horrible as it sounds, I’m not entirely certain that he should have had one. It seemed to me like, although it seems cruel, he should have had a tragic ending, a feeling not helped by the fact that he is brought almost to the point of death and then miraculously brought back by the power of a promise to his mother.
If you like fantasy, historical fiction, realistic fiction, or even drama, there is something for you to enjoy in the Lymond Chronicles. I have a pathological compulsion against finding anything perfect, but this six book series certainly comes close.