When the second of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles begins, Francis Crawford of Lymond is no longer a pariah and exile but a trusted protector of the Queen of Scotland. The six-year-old queen is being brought up in the French court, and Mary of Guise, her mother, fears that the young queen’s life is in danger, and she enlists Lymond to travel incognito to France and keep watch over her and foil any plots against her. Lymond being Lymond, he makes no promises regarding how much he’ll share of what he learns, and the Queen Dowager makes no promises to protect him if he’s discovered.
Lymond insinuates himself into the French court, and before long he’s rescued the young queen from a runaway elephant and learned of the theft of a hundred grains of arsenic. And that’s just the beginning of the danger. In ferreting out the assassin, Lymond gets embroiled in scandal and becomes a target himself.
Teresa: When we first met Lymond in Game of Kings, it wasn’t clear whether he was a hero or a villain. Now, we know he’s no villain, but a lot about him remains a mystery. He’s in disguise, and it’s not easy to tell where the artifice begins and ends. For me, that’s one of the things that makes this series so compelling. Besides being spectacularly talented in music, fighting, and witty repartee, Lymond has depth to his character that we only get glimpses of, but those glimpses are oh so tantalizing and make me want to keep reading.
Jenny: I agree. One of the questions I asked in our discussion of Game of Kings was whether you thought he was too perfect as a hero. I think this book shows a few of his flaws, which makes it a better book (and makes him a better hero.) Here, he shows himself original, artistic, wittier even than the glorious wits of the French court, swift at the political puzzles he is set, a natural leader — but capable of being badly hurt, and with need and room to grow.
This novel has a central story, of course — a mysterious someone who wishes the little Queen harm — but it is also a dazzling series of set pieces. The stampede of elephants! The wrestling match with the Cornishman! The scene where we find out what happened to the arsenic! The rooftop race at Blois is perhaps my very favorite scene in all of the Lymond Chronicles. It’s one delicious scene after another, designed to show all Lymond’s powers and yet to hide them.
Teresa: Yes, there are some great scenes. The rooftop race is a highlight for me, too–and then there’s the cheetah and the fire on the boat and so much more. This book includes some of the most exciting moments in the series. But taken as a whole, it isn’t one of my favorite Lymond books. I prefer the books that dig more into Lymond’s family, and a Lymond book without a Somerville just feels incomplete to me.
Since we don’t have any Somervilles for Lymond to spar with, we should probably talk about Oonagh O’Dwyer. What do you think of her? I’m intrigued by her, but I can’t make up my mind what I think about her. I think part of my problem is that I couldn’t always figure out what she was up to–always a hazard in books about people plotting against each other. It might take me another reading to figure her out.
Jenny: How funny, I’m almost the exact opposite. I get tired of poor Lymond having to everlastingly deal with his rotten old family (Richard excepted, mostly.) I’d rather have him deal with the entire French (or Turkish, or Russian) court, instead. But we are as one about the Somervilles!
Oonagh is a curious creature. Dunnett shows such a strong preference in her fiction for plain, sensible women (Margaret Erskine vs. Jenny Fleming, just as this book’s example) that to have Oonagh playing a very different kind of role and yet to be wooed (both intellectually and physically) by Lymond was, as you say, intriguing. I get the sense that she’s addicted to power, like Margaret Lennox, but unlike Margaret Lennox, not for her own sake. Perhaps that’s what saves her from being truly vicious. That, and — I also don’t get the sense that she’s nearly as intelligent as Lymond is. She can see several steps into the chess game, but not far enough.
Teresa: I also sometimes feel that Dunnett likes including fierce and independent women in her books but is hesitant about taking the independence too far. I can appreciate that given my distaste for women who seem too modern in historical fiction. But it’s a tricky balance, and she gets in just right with Groa from King Hereafter, my favorite of Dunnett’s women. Oonagh, on the other hand, seems to swing from one extreme to the other.
I’ve been consulting the Dorothy Dunnett Companion by Elspeth Morrison as I read, and I was interested to learn that there really was a plot against the young Mary, Queen of Scots. This is a period of history that I don’t know much about, and I enjoy how Dunnett blends real but (mostly) little-known events and people with her fictional creations.
Jenny: Oh, I’ll have to look at my copy and see if the real plot involved a menagerie!
I think one of the reasons I love this book so much is that we see Lymond becoming a leader. In the next book, Disorderly Knights, he’ll need every ounce of skill he’s gained and every ounce he can gather in order to lead Europe’s finest group of fighting men, including some who gradually grow to doubt him. Queens’ Play shows some of that mettle being tested. Join us (and Annabel!) as we read on and see what happens next!