I recently finished a novel series by the late Dorothy Dunnett entitled “The Lymond Chronicles.” Written between 1961 and 1975, the six novels cover the exploits of one Francis Crawford of Lymond in the years 1547 through 1558.
Blond, Scottish, a lesser noble by birth, Francis Crawford of Lymond grew up a voracious reader, mastering an encyclopedic knowledge of philosophy, literature, math and the sciences. He’s a talented musician and topnotch strategist whose studies and imagination have enabled him to come up with wildly original tactics. A non-comformist by nature, he’s suspicious of political and religious causes, and though he is a devotee of rigor in all things and a stickler for following rules—his rules—he garners the undying loyalty of his followers and the love of his admirers despite his apparent coldness.
The series’ six novels—The Game of Kings, Queens’ Play, The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle, and Checkmate—unfolds as an odyssey as we follow brash and arrogant young Crawford through his exploits as he matures, finds, serves, and discards the exalted powers of royalty as a spy and later as head of a mercenary army. Often an unsympathetic character, Francis can be cruel, but remains true to his moral code at all costs.
Professionally, he succeeds in becoming more famous and in greater demand, while personally he becomes more isolated, defended always by his own mettle, his intelligence, his ability to display a rapier wit in Latin, English, French, Spanish, old Scots, Italian, Russian, and Arabic. (In fact, there are so many of these quotes, that Dorothy Dunnett aided in the compilation of a ‘companion’ book that delivers background information on the multitude of characters that people the series as well as explanations of the classical allusions, and literary and other quotations used in the Chronicles.)
Gallant when he sees the moral right, he is nonetheless driven to attain his own goals by whatever means necessary, whether they include bringing a psychopath to justice, setting a nation on its path to a stable future, or offering a platonic marriage to an innocent to protect her good name. Sometimes he’s successful, other times not, but through it all he strives to balance professional career with a personal life that’s disintegrating before his eyes.
Dunnett leads us a merry chase, deftly weaving adventure after adventure through the warp and weft of her historic fabric, for it’s history that provides her with plot elements and prominent characters, twists and turns written in treaties, provided by political marriages and alliances, wars, and piracy. The Tudors, the Habsburgs, the Valois, the Stewarts, Ivan the Terrible, the Knights of St. John, the Ottoman Empire of Suleiman the Magnificent, all invite her into their political, economic and power intrigues in a time when the number of women in positions of power—whether rulers, regents, heirs to a throne, wives or mistresses of kings or of lesser men, or naïve do-gooders—offer Dunnett the ability to engage them in the exploration of women’s roles.
Above all, it is Dunnett’s ability to afford us twist upon twist of plot points, leaving us in complete awe as she drives Crawford to a failed professional life and mental and physical breakdowns that lead him to a shattering conclusion: service to his country, reconciliation with his family and his one true love is of paramount importance.
While these novels take place about 150 years after the period in which The Luck of Two Magpies is set, Dunnett’s imagination, the fluidity of her writing, the breathless pace of action, and above all, her insight into and compassion for her characters, is nonpareil. And if the style is somewhat outmoded and overwritten by today’s standards, it’s still a classic with a capital ‘C’ all the way. If you love medieval and renaissance tales, compelling stories that span nations and decades, I heartily recommend Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.