The last scene of Pawn in Frankincense left us standing, bereft, as Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny left his friends, his opium habit, his country, his son, and his virgin wife. He left unexpectedly, for parts unknown, in the smooth and intelligent company of Kiaya Khàtùn, the former mistress of Dragut Rais. We didn’t know where he was going, but we knew he never intended to return. At the beginning of The Ringed Castle, we discover where he was going — the frozen, entrenched country of the Tsar — and why: he means to earn the half-mad Tsar’s trust, and build a modern country on Russia’s medieval foundations, with the help of the men of St. Mary’s. But intrigue is afoot to bring Lymond back to Scotland, whether he wants to come home or not.
Jenny: This is the third time I’ve read this book, and I honestly think it’s the first time I’ve really enjoyed it. I spoke in our review of Pawn in Frankincense about how Lymond had grown into his leadership, and how much his relationships meant to him. In this book, thanks to his experiences with Gabriel, all of that is gone: Lymond has frozen any personal touch deep inside himself. He is utterly restrained, able to endure anything, physically or emotionally. The first couple of times I read the book, I think I missed his humor and his wit too much to be able to see the depth of the Voevoda Bolshoia (Lymond’s title as general of the Tsar’s armies.) This time, I loved the richness of what Dunnett shows us about him, even under all that ice.
Teresa: This book is not among my favorites in the series, but I liked it the first time I read it. I think getting to know Lymond better through this second reading makes it more rewarding. You’re right that he’s a more serious man than in past books. He’s always putting on a show, but I think the kind of show he put on in the previous books just isn’t possible for him now. He has to be hard, lest he break. He looks stronger than ever, but inside he’s at his weakest.
My main complaint about this book, what keeps it from being one of my favorites, is that there’s almost too much going on. The political plots, which I often find hard to follow, completely lost me at times in this book. And I longed for an edition with a character list at the front. Why don’t they all have that? But I did what I always do when I start to get lost in the labyrinth of these books; I focused on the central personalities, on Lymond, Philippa, and Diccon Chancellor. Dunnett’s characters are always interesting enough to get me through the rocky bits.
Jenny: I agree that the list of characters is very long, and almost all of them are historical. I looked up many of them online to find out more about them, and some of them I knew from other contexts — my recent reading of Wolf Hall, for instance, or from John Crowley’s novels. This third reading for me has been focused on the political plots; I feel that this time I have the constellations of relationships in better order and can understand the politics a bit better. That, in turn, enriches my understanding of Lymond, because, as Dunnett observes in this book, in large part he exists at the level of nations. His driving desire to be in Russia and lead the Tsar’s armies is not because he wants to escape his personal problems, it’s because he wants to give an entire nation a two hundred years’ short cut into the modern world.
But the personalities are irresistible. Diccon Chancellor is one of my favorite characters in any of the books, given (perhaps) my own love of travel and exploration. There’s Slata Baba, the great golden eagle. And Philippa! I adore her in this book, as she slowly comes to realize some of the policies and relationships that surround her, and to put her seraglio education to real use.
Teresa: One of the great things about these books is how each reading allows you to focus on new and different aspects of the story. There’s so much going on that it’s impossible to take it all in the first (or second!) time.
Philippa is a highlight of this book for me. I feel like this is the book where she really grows up. The events of Pawn in Frankincense opened her eyes to so much, but I think she still has a somewhat simplistic view of the world when this novel opens. She knows what’s right, and she will do it. But right and wrong are not always so simple, and I think she see begins to understand the limits of acting on her principles, particularly when it comes to finding out the truth about Lymond’s family.
Jenny: That’s exactly right. If you look at it objectively, she’s dreadful in this book: she digs up unsolicited information about Lymond and lets it fall into the hands of his worst enemies; she meddles in treason and unknowingly implicates Lymond; she doesn’t allow a man ten years her senior and worlds her better in experience to use his own judgment about his chosen work and his fate. Yet we love and admire her. (And so does Lymond!) How Dunnett does it I will never know.
That news about his family is one of the strings that’s plucked over and over in the book. Lymond wants to teach himself not to care, but he can’t. When he returns unwillingly to Scotland and meets Richard on the beach, it’s one of the most devastating scenes of the novel. His distrust of Sybilla is similar: she always trusted him, even when no one else did, and now he can’t have faith that there’s more to her situation than meets the eye.
Teresa: I think what makes Philippa so appealing is that she looks out for other people in a way few characters in the series seem to. Her judgment is often flawed, and she crosses the line between active concern and intrusive meddling more than once, but she does it out of genuine concern for Lymond, Kuzum, Sybilla, and so on. And it’s not as if Lymond’s approach to life is healthy. He needs someone like Philippa to make him look at the truth and accept it. Philippa is flawed, but Lymond needs a Philippa in his life.