Pawn in Frankincense

pawn-in-frankincenseIn the final chapters of The Disorderly Knights, Francis Crawford of Lymond learned that his former lover Oonagh O’Dwyer had given birth to a son, and that child, most likely Lymond’s son, was in the hands of his greatest enemy. Now, in the fourth book of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, Lymond follows the trail across Europe, along the cost of Africa, and finally into Turkey where he must attempt to bargain with Suleiman the Magnificent himself. The journey stretches Lymond to his limits, forcing him to weigh one life against another in situations where winning no longer seems possible. But if anyone can find victory in a no-win situation, it’s Lymond. So does he?

Teresa: This is my favorite of the Lymond books. It’s unrelenting in its build-up. Every scene seems to raise the stakes, and the occasional pauses never last long. We lose the fun and frenzy of Lymond’s plots and plans–although there are some funny moments–but we see Lymond growing up into a man who is less in love with his own cleverness and more able to make big sacrifices for others. Indeed, life gives him no other choice.

Jenny: It’s interesting that you say this is your favorite of the books — I dreaded reading it, for several of the reasons you say you love it! But it’s certainly the most memorable book for me, and perhaps the linchpin of the series. I never thought Lymond was immature, but we’ve discussed his intense need for privacy, at the cost of his relationships. Here he’s earned his position as a leader, and his relationships matter to him more, even when he knows he must sacrifice them. We also see Philippa’s transformation in this book, from her enormous potential of girlhood into her reality as a woman. I could love this book best for that reason alone.

Teresa: Philippa is the big surprise in this book, and if someone were to describe her story to me outside of the context of this book, I’d roll my eyes at the ridiculousness of it. A 15-year-old girl following a mercenary all across Europe and eventually joining the sultan’s seraglio? No. Way. Yet Dunnett sells it. Each decision that leads Philippa to Stamboul makes sense in context. That’s part of what’s brilliant about this novel, as preposterous as it all is, it works, and it is emotionally devastating because we care so much about the characters.

Jenny: I totally agree! In Disorderly Knights, Philippa was worse than a nuisance, making misinformed decisions with long consequences. But in this book, she begins to get a sense of the human context and the politics that Lymond has been immersed in all along, and we see that delicate development through her eyes, and Jerrott’s. (I love his development, too, after his stubborn distrust in Disorderly Knights.)

The one character who stands out in this book as over-the-top to me is Gabriel. Don’t you think he’s really too evil, to the point of being two-dimensional? No one could really be as far-seeing, as obsessed with Lymond’s pain, as manipulative as Gabriel is. If he’d shown some human weakness or chance at redemption, I might have felt more for him.

Teresa: Yes, yes, yes, about Jerrott. I really love him in this book. And I agree about Gabriel being over-the-top. I can only assume some sort of psychological defect in which his only motivation is to assume the most power possible for himself.  When Lymond turns up and is able to see through the charade and keep Gabriel from his goals, he becomes a threat and must suffer. The idea that he can’t help himself doesn’t make me feel for him, though, and I don’t think we’re meant to. He’s a thorough-going villain who would sell his own child to get the upper hand over his enemy.

Regarding the children (and spoilers will be unavoidable here), I found it hard to believe that Gabriel really didn’t know which child was his and which was Lymond’s. Even if he doesn’t care about his child at all (and I don’t think he does), I can’t imagine him wanting to lose that piece of control of the situation, especially when being the sole possessor of that knowledge could theoretically keep him alive.

Jenny: Oh, good point. I think we are also supposed to be able to figure it out (Oonagh is always associated with water images, and one child is associated with shells; Gabriel and Joleta are always associated with peach and apricot images, and one child is associated with peaches.) But it makes sense that Gabriel would never have let such an important detail slip through his control-freak fingers.

Which brings us to the chess game — the most heartrending and yet, politically speaking, one of the most interesting scenes in the whole series. So many of the climactic scenes in these books turn out to have either Gabriel’s moving hand behind them, or Lymond’s. This is unexpected, unforeseeable, and in the power of a woman. The fact that you’re absolutely on the edge of your seat the entire time doesn’t hurt!

What do you make of Marthe on this reading?

Teresa: I’ve forgotten so much about the books since my first reading that I’m able to enjoy the fact that Marthe is an enigma at this stage (although I’m pretty sure she remains one right through the end of the series). Lymond himself doesn’t seem able to figure her out, and I enjoy seeing the normally in-control Lymond being kept off-kilter by someone who isn’t Gabriel. And despite how she treats Jerrott, I like her very much. She’s got such inner strength, but she seems like a lost soul, so brittle and fearful that she could become just about any sort of person.

What do you think of the ending? I remember being startled by the marriage the first time, even though I could understand the logic of it. This time, that felt right, knowing how things turn out. But I’m not sure what to make of Lymond’s decision to go away with Kiaya Khátún. I can see not wanting to go back to Scotland right away, but never? And to go away with her? I’m not sure I get it, although it does make for rich possibilities in the next book!

Jenny: I love that Dunnett gives us ample reason to distrust Marthe, and yet I wanted to like and trust her because she’s related to Lymond and because she’s so like him in some ways. It made me sympathize with poor Jerrott! I loved the poetry scene with her near the end; Lymond’s love of music and poetry has always been so foundational for him that this seemed vitally important for their relationship, whatever it will become.

As for the ending, I felt this time that if Lymond was going to be so logical about providing a husband for Philippa, he ought to have seen it through and not disappeared, however he felt. He was giving with one hand and taking away with the other. But as you say, the next book makes up for it! I can’t wait to read The Ringed Castle — and all of you are welcome to join us.

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14 Responses to Pawn in Frankincense

  1. Lisa says:

    I am with Jenny, I dread this book. Not just because of what Lymond and the children have to endure – and Salablanca, and Oonagh – but the misery Jerrott and Marthe inflict on each other (and oh that giraffe). I wait for Philippa and Archie like oases in the deserts. But it is still a brilliant book, of course – and as you say the linchpin for what comes later. I think Ringed Castle is my favorite.

  2. Alex says:

    I have never thought that these books would be for me- too much of the historical romance – but the fact that two readers who I very much admire think so highly of them makes me feel that i should at least give them a chance. Would I be getting a good representative impression of them if I started at the beginning of the series?

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t consider these historical romances at all; they’re more like historical adventures. Characters have affairs and fall in love, but that’s not generally the focus of the books. The first in this series, The Game of Kings, is definitely the place to start. It gives you a pretty good idea of what the rest of the series is like and is essential to understanding the characters.

  3. Helen says:

    I loved all six Lymond books of course, but this was actually one of my least favourites because it was so dark and emotionally intense. I’m thinking about reading the series again soon and I wonder if I’ll feel differently about it on a re-read when I’m more prepared for what’s going to happen. The whole ending of the book after the chess game is just a blur to me as I was so upset I couldn’t concentrate!

    • Teresa says:

      I do love my fiction dark, so this was just right for me, but I did have to psyche myself up for reading the chess scene and then I cried and cried when it was over.

  4. caroline mcilwaine says:

    What a great discussion. It IS a brilliant book but after close to 30 years of re-reading I still have to be brave to read the chess scene. I have always fretted that Lymond didn’t smuggle Khaireddin out of the nightingale seller’s house (I believe I know why…); and despised Kiaya Khátún as having had Kuzum and Philippa brought back after they were smuggled out so ingeniously. Or was it not her? Was it Roxelana? I didn’t understand or appreciate the ending with Francis’s swift leaving with KK for Russia, and have to admit that the fifth book is my least favourite and is often left out of a complete re-read of the series (apart from the key scenes). As I always say, I have never met characters I care about the way I do about the Crawfords, the Somervilles and their companions. I didn’t warm to enigmatic Marthe but in the last book when her existence/presence is so key to the resolution of the story I felt great compassion for her. I adore these books and think of Dorothy Dunnett as a writer without peer. I admire her on so many levels and often think how brave she was to write as she did “without a trace of sentimentality’ as one reviewer once said. If we love the people and times she created for us, imagine what it cost her to have some of them suffer what they did. Checkmate is my favourite – my original copy is in tatters, and right by my bedside right now! I envy anyone who is reading DD for the first time. I LOVE these books. Happily obsessed in fact! Carolinemc

    • Jenny says:

      The Ringed Castle was my least favorite on my first reading of the series, with Lymond so cold and distant. But on re-reading I’ve warmed up to it (so to speak) and I look forward to reading it with Teresa this time. And aren’t these books astonishing? I love introducing people to them.

  5. prue batten says:

    I’m an obsessed reader as well and will say that the chess game is the most gut-wrenching piece of literary theatre I have ever read. I remember the tears as I read it for the first time many years ago, being the mother of a small son. I have said before that I feel Dorothy Dunnett wrote with discreet sentimentality but leavened that further with scenes like the chess game and other (no spoilers but thinking of Oonagh) breathtaking moments. She is to be remembered as a writer utterly without fear on any level.

    • Jenny says:

      My favorite style of author is one who deals equally well with humor and poignancy. Dorothy Dunnett does both with brilliance, and also politics, poetry, human motivations, action sequences, and (to a lesser degree) religion. She can be a little over the top, plot-wise, but she always pulls it off!

  6. Thanks so much for your insightful discussion of Pawn in Frankincense, and everyone’s great comments. I find PinF the most difficult of the Lymond books to read, emotionally. But I adore it–as I do all of her books. Someone said they were obsessed…so am I. I am re-reading the series for the fourth time, and have started a visual blog of the series at Tumblr, if anyone is interested.www.lymondchronicles.tumblr.com

  7. Alex says:

    Oh I wished I “knew” you when I first read this book (and the other Lymonds). I knew something big was coming up so saved the end on Pawn to a Friday evening. Waited until the boyfriend went to sleep, prepared tea and focused 100% on those last chapters. It was such an emotional roller-coaster, I only felt sorry that I couldn’t immediately talk to someone about it. Some years ago there wasn’t a lot of information about DD online. Glad to see things are changing :)

    • Teresa says:

      I think when I first read Pawn I had the next book already waiting, so I just dove right into it as a way to cope. But I also remember telling lots of people about that chess game because I was so devastated by it–and awestruck at Dunnett’s skill in creating it.

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