Reading Notes April and May

Reading Notes April and May


Back in March I began re-reading one of my favorite book series: Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I’d been wanting to re-read them and yet putting it off for years because I knew how absorbed I’d get, how impossible it is for me to live the rest of life when I’m immersed in her world.

When I first read them I’d quit my job and had nothing else to do night and day for more than a week. This time I have five kids, homeschooling, housekeeping, etc. So it took me a little over two months to re-read the six books. And it was as wonderful as I thought it would be, and as frustrating. I really wish I had time to write extensively about these books I love so much, but this is just not the season of my life when I can write that much. Something to look forward to when the kids are older. Though perhaps next time I get around to it I’ll be reading them alongside Bella. There’s a sobering thought. It’s been ten years since my last read through. And in another ten years Bella will be 19 and probably mature enough to handle the themes and violence.

Anyway, with all the reading– and the sickness!– I never got around to posting my reading notes from April. So here are April and May together.


1. Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

In this second book of the Lymond Chronicles our hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, follows young Queen Mary Stewart to France, where she’s been sent to keep her out of the hands of the English and so that she can be raised in the French court, with the ultimate aim of marrying her to the Dauphin.

Lymond goes to France disguised as an Irishman because the Queen Mother, Mary of Guise, wants him to prevent attacks on the young queen’s life. He manages to insert himself into the French court and the novel traces his attempts to prevent various assassination plots, find the would-be murderer, and preserve his secret identity. Also, various political intrigues within the French and Scottish courts and scheming on the part of the English and Irish as well.

The nighttime scavenger hunt/race over the rooftops of Blois is one of the best scenes in all of literature.

Just as in Game of Kings, we see Lymond primarily through the eyes of those around him. Throughout the series we learn about his character by observing what he does, taking into account other people’s interpretations, but realizing that often they are dead wrong about his motivation. Usually the reader lacks crucial information and many of the clues that Dunnett does drop are easy to overlook in the first reading. They seem to be there primarily for you to notice on subsequent re-reads because their significance only becomes apparent in retrospect. Dunnett’s method of storytelling demands a much higher level of engagement than most novels. But I think it’s so worth it. She either teaches you how to read, how to observe, or you give up. It’s probably not incidental that she began as a mystery novelist.

2. Ulysses Found by Ernle Bradford

I’m only a few chapters in, but really liking this story of one man’s attempt to trace the geography of the Odyssey. The author was a sailor in the Royal Navy in WWII who brought his copy of the Odyssey with him wherever he went who then spent a lot of time messing around in boats on the Mediterranean in search of his hero, Ulysses. The authorial voice is really what makes this book, it’s delightful, insightful. Oh I really like it, but am too busy with my Dunnett to give it the attention it deserves, so back to the TBR pile it goes. I’m looking forward to finishing it. . . at some point.

3. The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

The third volume of the Lymond Chronicles, in which Francis Crawford goes to Malta to help the Knights of St John, the Knights Hospitallers, defend their island fortress against attack by the Ottoman Turks, then goes with them to the siege of Tripoli and then returns to Scotland to create his own band of mercenaries. We meet two new characters who will be primary actors in the next couple of books, the Scottish knights of Malta, Sir Graham Mallet, also known as Gabriel, and Jerott Blyth. The Malta bits are the slowest in the series, but the final part of the book, returning to Scotland is so refreshing after France and the Mediterranean.

In typical Dunnett style, Lymond’s thoughts and motivations are opaque to the reader through most of the book. We are carried through the story on trust, bemused as any of his friends at what he is about. This is why I like Lymond, though, I like having to work to understand what is going on and to think about motivations and actions. I like not having everything handed to me.

I sometimes wonder what Eliezer Yudkowsky (Writing Intelligent Characters would think about Lymond an an intelligent character. I keep thinking of his essay as I read and what Dunnett is doing is so very different than what he’s doing. Of course she’s a much more polished and accomplished novelist. But she also just has a different approach. For one thing she both follows and doesn’t follow his rules:

If you go by mainstream fiction, then ‘intelligence’ means a character who is said (not shown) to speak a dozen languages, who we are shown winning a game of chess against someone else who is told to be a grandmaster; if it’s a (bad) science-fiction book then the ‘genius’ may have invented some gadget, and may speak in technobabble. As the stereotypical template for ‘intelligence’ goes on being filled in, the ‘genius’ may also be shown to be clueless about friendships or romantic relationships. If it’s a movie or TV show, then ‘intelligent’ characters (usually villains) have British accents.

To a cognitive scientist, intelligence is a kind of cognitive work, a labor performed by brains—not necessarily human brains—the same way that a car engine outputs torque that turns wheels and drives a car forward. What is this cognitive work? We could say, “To model, predict, and manipulate reality.” Or we could say, “To output actions that steer the future into outcomes high in a preference ordering.”

. . .

Step one is to, in a very basic and ordinary fashion, have a character who does what seems, to that character, like the best thing to do in that situation—who optimizes their own life rather than behaving in ways convenient for the plot. Not, necessarily, super duper tremendously clevely optimizes; the great lesson of Artificial Intelligence is that everyday routine optimization already contains most of the difficulty of human-level intelligence. Not inventing a new shield of super-oak, not even solving the riddle; the kind of ‘optimization’ we’re talking about is being inhabited by an inner spark that is trying to make its own life go well rather than serve your plot.

It’s true Lymond speaks a dozen languages; but he’s also shown to speak them. He throws out quotations in French, English, Latin, Turkish, Scots. Poetry and prose and drama. He’s well read and shows it by the way he talks. Perhaps too much for some readers’ tastes. He’s also shown to be a great chess player in an actual chess game. He’s not clueless about romance and friendship, exactly. He’s wounded by several early event which have made it hard for him to form them. Can you say PTSD? And very genius (and his exceptional good looks) makes it hard for him to find a peer and not just people who are in love, in lust, or in hero worship. But his struggle to form friendships is a real struggle and not just a token of his intelligence. As for optimizing his life… sometimes Lymond does that, but sometimes he does boneheaded things for reasons of his own. Sometimes he even chooses to not make his life go well. But there is always a spark, an intelligence, that has its own motives for doing things. Certainly he is not a slave of the plot.


1. Pawn in Frankincense: by Dorothy Dunnett

The fourth book in the Lymond Chronicles encompasses a journey through the Mediterranean from France to Turkey with stops all over the islands and North Africa. Lymond is now the French Special Ambassador to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Most of the novel traces his wanderings from port to port as he shepherds the amazing horological spinnet to its destination and attempts to foil the machinations of his archenemy and to find his never-met illegitimate child.

Bastardy is a major theme in the novels and here is comes to the fore in several ways. What does it mean to know one’s heritage or to be deliberately deprived of it? A rather timely theme for our own day when political battles rage over donor conceived children.

One of my favorite characters of the series, Phillipa Sommerville, springs into a surprisingly active role, acquiring life experience and skills that make her unique among 16 year old English farm girls.

The novel climaxes with one of the most devastating chess games in all of literature. I even found a webpage where a chess player tried to work of the moves of the game.

2. Crimson Bound by Rosamond Hodge

I took a break from Dunnett to devour Rosamond Hodge’s new book, which these few lines will hardly do justice. I really enjoyed her debut novel, Cruel Beauty, and have been reading much of her shorter fiction and have been looking forward to this one for a while.

It’s not a sequel to Cruel Beauty. Rather, it takes place in a totally different world, an analog to 18th century France. I didn’t love this world quite as much as I loved that of Cruel Beauty, but it was an enjoyable book. (I think I’d have liked it better if I hadn’t read so many spoilers that gave away not plot points but the shape of the conflict. Hmm. Always the danger of anticipating a well publicized book. You hunger for more and so perhaps taste more than you should and before you should.

One scene blew me away, though, it was so unexpected and so dead right. But it’s pretty spoilery, so skip ahead to book #3 if you don’t want to find out too much.


“For your penance,” the Bishop said finally, “say three rosaries, one for each year of your sinful life, and offer them for the people you have harmed.”

“That is not remotely enough,” she snapped.

“Do you need also to confess doubts about the power of God to forgive sins?”

“Yes,” she admitted after a few moments.

“In that case, for your penance, say only one rosary.”


3. The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett

This has always been my least favorite of the Lymond novels and I was sort of dreading it. But this time through I liked this novel so much more. Francis Crawford goes to Russia to the court of Ivan the Terrible and attempts to impart to them Western military organization and tactics. He becomes the head of the entire Russian army. But with a mad czar he’s always walking a fine tightrope. At the same time the English embassy of Richard Chancellor arrives in Russia with the first attempt to open a northern trade route. They are more than a little surprised to find a Scotsman there with the ear of the czar. Meanwhile back in England the now mature Philippa has joined the court of Mary Tudor as one of her ladies in waiting and is still trying to unravel the mystery of Lymond’s heritage.

I didn’t find the Russian bits tedious at all this time through and I think I picked up a few more threads I hadn’t previously noticed. Dunnett famously said that when you finished the books you should go back and re-read them to look for the clues. Also, I’d forgotten that this novel has one of my favorite scenes showcasing Lymond and Philippa both in their delightful inventiveness at the Office of Revels in London.

4.Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett

The final heart-wrenching volume of the Lymond Chronicles. Lymond is back in France, fighting for King Henry against King Philip of Spain and England. Philippa joins him and continues with her quest to uncover the truth about his origins. The last time I read this novel I was unmarried. It reads a little different to me now that I’m in my tenth year of marriage. Dunnett has a lot to say about married love.

Some further thoughts on the Lymond series

There are so many things I want to say now that I’ve finished my Lymond re-read. So many great moments I want to analyze. I don’t have time and energy for all the blogging I’d like to do. Just reading the whole series took two whole months. Trying to blog it would be a major undertaking. Maybe next time I re-read it the kids will be older and I’ll have more leisure to write and think and write some more. I think next time I re-read I want to mark the big scenes where I’m sure I’m missing most of the subtext. There are quite a few of them where even after two read throughs I’m left scratching my head and wondering what just happened. I’d love to blog each of them in depth, pull them apart to see what makes them tick and see if I can’t dive more deeply into the richness of Dunnett’s prose. But that is not a task that suit me at this time in my life, alas.

One thought that occurred to me on this pass through is that you can see Dunnett’s roots as a mystery writer. Though these are historical novels and not mysteries, still each of the six books does have a mystery plot weaving through the other action and each has some form of the classic mystery denouement, the trial scene, the moment in which Dunnett finally reveals to her reader the solution to the puzzle. In Game of Kings it is Lymond himself on trial. In Queen’s Play we discover the identity of the person who has been plotting against young Mary Stewart and we have trial by combat. In The Disorderly Knights both Lymond and Gabriel have their trial scenes. In Pawn in Frankincense there is another trial by combat, the fatal chess game and also the discovery of the children. The Ringed Castle is the one novel that is least like a mystery, but it too has the scene of Lymond on trial for espionage. And finally in Checkmate there is the final big reveal of the secret that has been dogging Lymond his whole life: what is his true heritage? What is the story of his origin? Checkmate will always be my favorite.

I would like to do a re-read of the Niccolo books as well, but that series is even longer and more complex. I really need to focus more on family and homeschooling for a bit. Re-reading Lymond has been a delightful jaunt. I do need to do it at least once every ten years, if not more frequently.

This time through I found a delightful blog, The Idle Woman, where the London-based blogger with the pen name Leander writes very intelligent and thoughtful responses, and asks many very good questions. Lots of spoilers, but I really loved reading her reactions and wish that the blog entries weren’t several years old because I really want to jump into the conversation, but I’m afraid it would look weird when the posts are a year old. Funny because I love it when people post on my old book posts, but I worry about whether other bloggers would dislike it.

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  • Hi there!! I so enjoyed reading what you had to say about the Lymond Chronicles. I’m currently working my way through the series for the first time. I’ve read the first three and have been putting off diving into Pawn In Frankincense. I didn’t realize how intense this series was going to get!! 🙂 I’ve heard Pawn is the most dark & twisty of the books and I’m a little nervous about how I’ll like it, I guess. But wow – you are so right about how much they suck you in. Sometimes I’ll look up after I’ve been reading for awhile and realize how incredibly immersed in Dunnett’s world I’ve become. I’ve never encountered anything like this series before!

    • Pawn is definitely a book that will leave you feeling wrung out by the end. Especially the final parts of the novel. All the books have their dark moments, though. Reading Dunnett for the first time really is a treat. She’s like no other novelist I’ve found. I hope you enjoy your trek through the second half of the series.

  • I actually wrote you today under your Contact Me area to further this discussion if you’re up for it! 🙂

  • Hey, Melanie – do you remember me? I am currently making my way through Checkmate! Can’t believe my Lymond journey is about to come to an end. I’m about 200 pages from the ending, and have already cried so much. I can’t wait to find out how it all concludes. Hope you’re doing well!

  • Now I’m a year too late to comment 😉 Just to say, I’m so glad you enjoyed my posts on the Lymond Chronicles and I wanted to emphasise that all my reviews are ‘still live’, in the sense that I really encourage people to get involved and comment and discuss, no matter how old they are. Like you, I love to keep the posts active.

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your own thoughts on the series and thank you for the kind words!

    By the way, I’ve just moved my blog, so the link you posted isn’t the most up to date one any more – you can now find me at