Thoughts on finishing the Lymond Chronicles

I apologise for abandoning my blog this week – I’ve been very busy both at work and at home, and any spare time I did have was devoted to finishing Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. Because I read the final two books, The Ringed Castle and Checkmate so close together, rather than posting separate ‘reviews’ I decided to combine both books into the same post, along with some comments on the series as a whole.

Let’s start with the fifth book in the series, The Ringed Castle. After all the praise I’ve bestowed on the first four books it’s difficult to find new words to describe how I felt about this one, so suffice to say that it was as wonderful as the others. Russia is one of my favourite settings for historical fiction so I liked that aspect of the book, though I was equally interested in the chapters set at the Tudor court.

As with the previous novels, there’s a lot of history in this book – in the Russian sections we learn about Ivan IV, the Cossacks and the Crimean Tartars, and in the English sections we find ourselves at the centre of the conspiracies and political intrigue surrounding Queen Mary I and the future Elizabeth I. We also meet John Dee, the famous astrologer and mathematician, who is always interesting to read about, as well as another historical figure I knew nothing about: the explorer Richard Chancellor. Chancellor’s work with the Muscovy Company and as a navigator form quite a big part of the plot and I’m glad I’ve been able to learn something about his life and career. The final voyage of the Edward Bonaventure was so sad and one of the most memorable parts of the book for me.

Oh, and I loved the scene in the Hall of Revels, which finally led to the ‘Anvil Moment’ Aarti has been telling me about. And yes, it was worth waiting for!

When I started Checkmate, it was with a mixture of excitement at finding out how Lymond’s story would end and also sadness at the thought of reaching the end of the series. I was hoping to make the final book last as long as possible, but of course I couldn’t and it actually took less time to read than any of the others. In a series of unputdownable books, I found this one the most unputdownable of them all! I admit to having to cheat once or twice and flip forward a few pages, which is something I usually try not to do, but knowing from the previous books that Dorothy Dunnett had no qualms about killing off major characters, sometimes the suspense was just too much to bear.

Having said that, this wasn’t my favourite of the six books. There were parts that I loved – the chase through the streets of Lyon, the hilarious Hotel de Ville banquet, as well as finally learning the truth about Lymond’s birth – but overall I enjoyed some of the earlier books more. Still, I thought Checkmate was a great conclusion to the series and it was good to see so many of the characters from the previous books brought together in this one, including the return of Jerott, Marthe and one of my favourites, Archie Abernethy. And after The Ringed Castle, in which Lymond becomes more isolated than ever from his family, I was glad that Sybilla and Richard played such a big role in this book (it’s been fascinating to follow all the ups and downs of the relationship between Richard and Francis).

I’d like to finish by saying that I agree with all the Dorothy Dunnett readers who have been commenting on my previous Lymond posts – this is the best series of historical fiction novels I’ve ever read and I can see why so many of you have been re-reading them for decades because I’m sure I’ll be doing the same. And for anyone who has yet to read these books, I can promise you that although they’re not the easiest of reads, it’s definitely worth making the effort and getting to know Francis Crawford of Lymond, one of the most complex, charismatic, fascinating characters you’re ever likely to meet in literature. Working through the six books of the Lymond Chronicles has been one of the greatest experiences in my lifetime of reading.

23 thoughts on “Thoughts on finishing the Lymond Chronicles

  1. Lisa says:

    I didn’t fully understand “the anvil moment” the first time I read Ringed Castle, so I was in something of the same boat as Philippa for a while.

    As soon as I finished the last page of Checkmate, on my first reading, I went straight back to Game of Kings and read the whole series through again. Partly it was knowing that I’d missed so much, reading so quickly the first time, but I think it was partly refusing to accept that it was really the end, and that there was no more Lymond, no more Philippa or Archie – when I still wanted to know what happened next.

    • Helen says:

      I was very tempted to go straight back to the beginning and read them all again too, but I’ve decided to wait until I’ve read the Niccolo series. I will definitely be re-reading eventually though.

  2. Teresa says:

    I must must must read these again. I don’t even remember the anvil moment! The last books in particular are a huge blur because I read them so quickly.

    And if you enjoyed these, you’re in for a treat with Niccolo–I liked those books even more! (And need to reread them as well.)

    • Helen says:

      I’m looking forward to starting the Niccolo books. It’s good to know that you liked them more – I’ve been worried that they won’t match up to Lymond.

      • simhedges says:

        They’re certainly very different to the Lymond series (though DD still like a Major Character Death everyone so often). Don’t expect another Lymond to emerge, or you will be disappointed.

  3. Alex says:

    Checkmate seems to be the favorite of most people, but I (once again) agree with you: not mine. Maybe expectations were just too high by then. The chase through the roofs of Lyon was probably the best action scene I’ve ever read and I remember thinking “this book is going to be amazing”. But in the end, all the angst, the misunderstandings were, although incredibly well written, a bit too frustrating.

    Are you starting the Niccolo series next? I’ve started the 4th, Scales of Gold, yesterday.

    • Helen says:

      The scene you mention was one of my favourites in the series, but after that, like you, I started to get a bit frustrated and impatient with both Lymond and Philippa (though I was doing my best to understand their reasons for behaving the way they did). I’m hoping that when I get round to reading the book again I might enjoy it more than I did this time.

      And yes, I’ll be starting Niccolo Rising soon, after a short break to catch up on some other books I’ve been wanting to read.

  4. aartichapati says:

    Oh, I’m so glad that you enjoyed the Anvil Moment as much as I did! I didn’t much care for Checkmate, either. I thought it went a little overboard on the drama, and I couldn’t help finishing the series with a vague sense of unease about Lymond’s mother being a major villainess. What did you think of Sybilla? I don’t remember why I felt that way any more, but she struck me as quite manipulative when a whole lot of heartache could have been avoided if she’d just been more straightforward.

    I hope you move on to Niccolo now 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Sybilla wasn’t one of my favourite characters but I didn’t really have a problem with her, though I do agree that she could maybe have saved a lot of trouble by being more communicative!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad to hear that, Anbolyn, as I was worried that so many Lymond posts might be boring for people who hadn’t read the books. I hope you decide to give them a try one day.

  5. Sarah says:

    I started with the Niccolo series and, when finished, went through the same worry that I couldn’t like Lymond as much because I loved Nicholas so, so much! So…I guess that just means that they both grab hold and won’t let you go! (I LOVED the Lymond series just as much in the end. I don’t know that I could ever pick a favorite)

  6. Bski says:

    I read Lymond as the books were published and am torn between Pawn IF and Checkmate as my favorites – I LOVE DD’s amazing talent – I struggled thru Niccolo, but I think I was too distracted by my real life at the time – I have all the two series in audio (on my iPod) and I’ve heard most of Lymond (which is a wonderful way to get a new perspective on the story) – but I really have to take the time (hours and hours) to listen to Niccolo – I still dont have a handle on the end of the saga. Thanks for writing your blog – I’ve used the last paragraph here to nudge my college roommate (English major!) to finally try it – she’s been reluctant! How could that be????

    • Helen says:

      Good luck with getting your roommate to read them! I can never seem to convince family and friends to read the books that I love – even when I’m sure they would love them too.

  7. caroline mcilwaine says:

    I love Checkmate beyond measure. And in Sybilla’s defence, we have to remember her love was for three men – her late husband, son Francis & son Richard; part of her motivation was in protecting Richard’s inheritance which Francis could have taken had he known he was the legitimate son after all. And she was keeping a promise. I am sure she suffered in knowing what others went through because the puzzle was not revealed, and sensitive souls dealt with their partial understandings in often brave and selfless and torturous ways. Love for Francis & Sybilla led to the terrible sacrifice that Philippa made, but really it came about because Bailey bore such hatred for the Crawfords. Some reviewers have commented over decades about the powerful themes & scenes in the series being almost “opera”-like – and I agree that over-the-top registers at times but then the 1500s were brutal times. I can see how the story & prose would not be for everyone. I have only been able to persuade one person in 30 yrs to read the books and that was my eldest daughter who had happily shared and discussed books with me such as Sharon Penman’s but she confessed to needing time to recover from DD’s brilliance. I still remember reading the final chapters of Checkmate decades ago (after midnight) while my husband was watching Wimbledon on the TV (we live in Oz so we get the good games at night) and I could hardly breathe, thinking DD was going to kill off those I had come to care about so very much. When I got to a particular scene I cried out in distress and I was so poleaxed I couldn’t make sense of the paragraphs following the shootings, especially where it talked of the spirit remaining. I thought DD had gone all metaphysical on my poor bruised heart and mind. I even remember feeling angry. But, oh, she gave us so much more. LOVE these books. I have never felt the same way about the Niccolo series (the “female lead” is nothing like the amazing Philippa), but recently re-read Gemini and felt I might be ready to re-read all eight books.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for sharing your views on Sybilla, Caroline. I’m sure I’ll have a better understanding of her motivations (and those of the other characters) when I read the series a second time. Everything is so complex the first time round!

  8. caroline mcilwaine says:

    Oh, and I agree about those other heart-stopping scenes – the rooftop chase and the lively banquet scene, love them! It was DD’s humour in so many instances that relaxed us in our reading. Without it, we would have been in an endless state of stress! :O)

  9. Bski says:

    I remember the Hotel de Ville scenes very very fondly – I dont think I ever laughed so hard at something in a book before (or after!). And, yes, Sybilla was protecting Richard’s patrimony – she knew Francis would be able to take care of himself, but Richard would have been devasted to give up his position as ‘head of the family’. IMO, Francis’ temperment would not have been happy being just Lord of the Manor – he needed the world stage to be fulfilled.
    I think his mother suffered at least as much over it as anyone else in the saga. So glad you are pursuing Niccolo-I’m reading your reports as you go – I’m just thru with Lymond, after coming back from the Istanbul trip – so now I’m going to re-read all of Niccolo.

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