Comparisons and Connections

This post was prompted by a recent exchange on Twitter, where I’m pretty active (@spiderbill if anyone wants to follow along). The conversation turned to readers who had loved Lymond but couldn’t get into Niccolo (both series and character) and Ellen Kushner, who as many of you will know is a very well respected author and avowed Lymond fan, said she felt HoN was maybe too much writing technique and not enough heart.

Allison Stock, who has just read Lymond for the first time and has been entertaining us with her comments, and is now three-quarters of the way through Niccolo, asked in reply if Ellen felt “…was that BECAUSE of Nicholas as a character, or was Nicholas’s character a result of excessive technique?” @DunnettCentral then asked for other’s comments but I felt it was impossible to summarise such a complex issue in the 140 character format of Twitter. So here we are!

As always there were varied responses around the basic topic of which series people like best. One felt that Nicholas was arrogant; which slightly surprised me as that is usually a jibe thrown at Lymond, though I think I understand what was meant. Another said that Nick was motivated by revenge. On the other side the HoN was felt to be greater in scope – more diverse socially and culturally, and with more believeable women compared to the brilliant ones of the Chronicles.

This discussion took me back to the halcyon days of Dunnetworks and Marzipan discussions, where we compared and contrasted the two series on many occasions. It was interesting to hear one old chestnut revived – that the series you start with is the one you prefer. That was a common view for a long time and has some apparent merit as a common sense idea, but in fact in the days when membership of the email lists ran to many hundreds this was tested and found to not be anything like as clear cut as expected.

Now I should declare my allegiances at this point. I adore both series but if I was on that fabled castaway island with the miraculous choice of reading I would take Lymond every time.

It’s an emotional response without doubt – the characters in HoN are complex and intriguing and fascinating but for me the ones in LC are vivid and alive to the point where you feel you know them personally, and the emotional connections they make with each other and with us feel as concrete as those in our real lifes. In a very real sense we are in love with them, we yearn with them, we despair at the cruel turns which block their paths to happiness, we feel their confusion and their clarity, their disillusionment and their determination. We shout at the books in horror as we see a wrong decision or a missed opportunity. And we cry with Philippa when the worst possible tune is played by the band below her windowsill, and feel the stab in the heart as Lymond in the tower shuts down his body to maintain a flicker of life with her name on his lips.

For all the wonderful descriptions, the ingeniously deep plotting (by both author and protagonists), the richness of the interactions and the historical connections, I don’t quite have the same emotional response to HoN. There are times when it comes close: when you feel Gelis’ confusion over her feelings towards Nicholas, when you grasp something of Kathi’s hyperactive pesonality, or Tobie’s curiosity mixed with apprehension about where Nicholas could be heading next. But perhaps because the main character is so veiled in his emotions despite us seeing far more often through his perspective than we ever see through Lymond’s, it feels that there is a level of connection that is missing.

As an aside it reminds me of a conversation Dorothy and I once had. The discussion had turned to music and she was quizzing me about my tastes after I’d mentioned the coincidence that Alastair and I shared our choice of favourite symphony – Beethoven’s Seventh. She knew I was a former sound engineer and understood when I said there were certain types of music that I could admire and analyse despite not really liking them – classical voice for instance does very little for me. I can listen to someone like Fischer-Dieskau and marvel at his control and tone but I don’t actually like listening to lieder as preferred music as I just don’t connect to it emotionally, and to me emotion in music is everything. We discussed the music of Mozart, undoubtedly great, wonderfully flowing melodies, but for me the sheer genius and emotional impact of Beethoven, the crashing splendour and turmoil of Neilsen, the romanticism of Rachmaninov – that is the music (on the classical side) that I connect to the most. Dorothy understood, though being a lover of opera she did encourage me to listen to more of Mozart’s contributions to that field. (We never did get round to Italian opera before the conversation took different turns!)

Now all this is not to say that this is a fault in House of Niccolo, it is simply that my connection to the books is on a more emotional basis. Others may have a very different connection. I’ve often heard Ann McMillan wax lyrical about Nicholas for instance and there is no doubt that she has a connection to and perhaps an understanding of him that is different to mine. Another dear friend and long-time correspondent Tina Dallas also feels a closer bond to both Nicholas and Gelis than to Lymond.

Nor are my observations above a criticism of the writing in any way. Unlike some other authors (who may be more beholden to their publishers), Dorothy didn’t want to write a second series of Lymond. In returning to a series format after completing a near decade of research and writing of the outstanding King Hereafter, she wanted to do something new, something different, to challenge herself and her readers in different ways before leading them full circle. We see her swapping character traits and looks initially, maybe just to remind us that all is never what it seems and to show us that not only is there more than one kind of hero but that life often has many shades of grey, and that personal motivations can be even more byzantine than those of Lymond’s political landscapes.

But she was also developing an even wider and more complex series of ideas. For example, are heroes always heroes, are villains always villains, or are they entangled and intertwinded? Do heroes do bad things, whether for good or evil, and does that stop them being heroes? Do villains ever do brave things for the right reasons, and are they born villains or do circumstances create them? We’re a long way from the blatant evil of Graham Reid Mallett!

And what of the main characters themselves? One of the Twitter posters said that “Niccolo grew into his character; Lymond’s seemed fully formed at 21.” and that is also a key point when attempting to compare the series. Lymond has had the benefit of Sybilla’s immaculate upbringing and the resources available to a noble family. He has then been tested in the most dangerous of situations in the galleys and as a mercenary. He appears fully formed when we first meet him, though it is the missing/damaged aspects of his life and the unravelling of his psyche and the moral certainties he had relied on that forms a large part of the story. Nicholas’ story is starting earlier, with a far poorer education and troubled background, lacking mother or father and with only Marion’s necessarily detached guidance to steer him. His is a story of development, of what circumstances shape that person he becomes, of what demons – some obvious and others deeply hidden – he must face and overcome. It is also very much a story of moral development from the ground up, lacking guidance or moderation after Marion’s death, and possessed of a fearsome ability to create and set off intricate scenarios that have unpredictable consequences, he must learn from experience and sometimes take the wrong route before building a moral compass of his own.

Such differences and the added complexities of Nicholas’ story make fair comparisons almost impossible. We can read them in many ways but ultimately only marvel at the wordsmith’s skill and the exquisit world building. For me, the romantic chess player and emotional music listener, it is the first series that captures my heart a little more completely. For others, perhaps with Dorothy’s love of puzzles, and a deep appreciation of interwoven and multi-layered plots it may be the second.

But of course you know that she regarded them as one unified series of 14 books…

Is that the faint sound of laughter I hear?

I hope so, for in these precious gifts of books we have found a banquet under the heavens that will serve us for ever!


Comparisons and Connections — 21 Comments

  1. Yes, indeed. You put the feelings I could not identify about Niccolo perfectly–couldn’t related to him emotionally. Thanks.

  2. I agree with so much of this, and love the way you’ve said it.

    For me, my connection with my favourites of the series, the Lymond books, has the same basis – an emotional connection and a greater connection with its people (including even the most minor characters). Put most simply, I suppose, I never cried through Niccolo.

    But also, intellectually, through the Lymond books, Dorothy Dunnett taught me to think. That’s something I just can’t say for the Nicholas books. Perhaps I might have done, if I’d read Niccolo first; but I don’t think so.

    Somehow, for me, the questions in the Lymond books just matter more, and I engage more in watching how the characters (not least Lymond himself) face them, think about them, work through them and arrive at conclusions for thought and action. In the words of Will Hunting, ‘Whatever blows your hair back’.

    By contrast, so often in Niccolo, I feel, we get a character’s (especially Nicholas’s) exposition of a problem or issue, and what he thought about it and how he dealt with it, without getting the same intellectual as well as emotional journey and connection that we get through the Lymond books.

    Comparing Lymond and Nicholas themselves, I’m not sure I hold that Lymond is fully-formed at 21. Emotional and psychological development and experience are so important in development overall that I think we are still seeing a story of Lymond’s development.

    He is probably as clever as he will ever be, and he is educated, at the start of Game of Kings. But we see him constantly extending his education through reading, experience and auto-didactism. More importantly, we see him learning how to handle his cleverness, as well as how to build, manage and trust in relationships, and how to be more tolerant and less arbitrary in applying his moral compass (almost more ethically and less purely morally).

    The scene you mention at the end of Checkmate, of Lymond alone in the tower, is one of my favourites. As you note, compared with Nicholas, we are rarely allowed inside Lymond’s very private and guarded head. But when we are, it’s extraordinary. In this scene, from ‘There was a certain satisfaction in it’, over a single page, we are taken with such beautiful understatement through the progress of Lymond’s complex and deep thought, humour and emotion to the last word and thought in his mind, ‘Philippa’. And then the fleeting scene which follows.

    This certainly makes me both cry and think, in a way that Nicholas never does.

  3. I can’t quite feel the same on all the points about music. I am a ‘classical’ singer among other things, so I like many of the genres and composers in that field. 🙂 And singing the stuff can often be better than the proverbial … so it certainly gets me emotionally.

    I love a lot of opera, but it depends on the composer. The same goes for lieder or art-song. For example, speaking generally, I find Schubert a bit dry but find Schumann beautiful (although that doesn’t mean I even like all Schumann’s songs).

    Mozart is almost in a box by himself. He produced so much. Some of it really can sound a bit like music by numbers for the sake of the fee (I hope no Mozart worshippers know where I live at this point). But the great stuff of Mozart (which can still be more sheer quantity music than a lot of composers produced in their lifetimes) is, I think, as emotional as it is technically wonderful.

    For me, Fischer-Dieskau’s lieder recordings are a bit the same. It sounds like he recorded so much, for the sake of getting it recorded, that it often lacks in depth of understanding, interpretation and emotion.

    And that leads me to: it’s often the singer (or in the case of the duets of art-song, the singer plus the accompanist), as much as the composer, that makes the music. I can dislike vocal music if I don’t like the voice or interpretation of the singer.

    Most recommendations for emotion in opera are to La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Tosca or Carmen, or perhaps La Traviata. There’s a lot of other stuff I go for, especially French, for greater subtlety. And I’d add Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (which is, incidentally, also a lovely story of how a romantic liaison between an older woman and a seventeen-year-old lover can end remarkably well …).

    Here are some opera recordings – singers plus composers – to ‘blow your hair back’. Noting that computer speakers don’t do them all justice. The format in the list is ‘singer – composer – piece (opera it’s from)’.

    * Rita Streich – Godard – Berceuse de Jocelyn (Jocelyn):
    * Rita Streich – Rossini – Una voce poco fa (Barber of Seville):
    * Gundula Janowitz – Mozart – Ach ich fühl’s (Die Zauberflöte):
    * Sena Jurinac or Renata Tebaldi – Puccini – Vissi d’arte (Tosca): or
    * Schwarzkopf, Jurinac and Rothenberger – Strauss – Trio (Der Rosenkavalier):
    * Bjorling and Merrill – Bizet – Pearl Fishers Duet (Pearl Fishers):
    * Fritz Wunderlich – Tchaikovsky – Lenski’s aria (Onegin):
    * Thomas Hampson – Thomas – Comme une pâle fleur (Hamlet):
    * Hermann Prey or Thomas Hampson – Korngold – Pierro’s Tanzlied (Der Tote Stadt): or
    * Jussi Bjorling – Bizet – Flower Song (Carmen) –

    And, because tenors seem to be most popular for most people – in my opinion, here are the best recordings of the best tenor of all time, for pure emotion and artistry, as well as technique … Jussi Björling:

    Especially in that album:
    * Flower Song (from Carmen by Bizet) –
    * Amor ti vieta (from Fedora by Giordano) –
    * Come un bel di (from Andrea Chenier by Giordano):
    * Che gelida manina (from Boheme by Puccini):
    * Nessun dorma (from Turandot by Puccini):
    * Zueignung (song by Strauss):
    * A Dream (song by Grieg):
    * Tonerna (song by Sjoberg):

  4. Hi Catherine
    Well I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds some of Mozart to be a bit churned out for the fee!! (They’ll never find me in Slovenia!)
    Certainly much of his better stuff is indeed emotional – I just find that, for me, Beethoven moved it to a new level.
    Thanks for continuing Dorothy’s work of educating me in opera (lieder would be a lost cause) and for the list of Youtube videos. I’ll try to find time to sit down and study them. Now how interesting that you admire Jussi Björling above all. I came across his version of Nesssun Dorma a number of years ago and was blown away. But I happen to know that he was a favourite of Dorothy’s too. She called him “sweet toned Jussi”.

    I’m also a fan of many other types of music, including Scottish/Celtic folk. I once asked Dorothy if she knew any of my favourites but she wasn’t familiar with them – probably just didn’t have enough hours in the day. I know that as she had taught Alastair an appreciation of classical music, he had taught her old Scots ballads.

    The late great Scots fiddler Johnny Cunningham of Silly Wizard was one of my favourites. I once worked with him and he used to take part in a fan email discussion group. But I only found out after his death that he was a Dunnett reader and had expressed a wish to write music for film or TV series if one had come about. How I would have loved to have got him and Dorothy in the same room. And his haunting music would have been wonderful for Lymond or King Hereafter.

  5. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your reply. 🙂

    I suppose, deep down, I ask, what could Beethoven have done, without Mozart before him, and love Mozart for that. 🙂

    But I am a lover of Beethoven. And Beethoven’s 7th – ohhh – even if ONLY for the Allegretto … aaaah-ahhhhh. One of my castaway-island pieces of music. I have always, perhaps weirdly, thought it the perfect underscore to Hamlet – my favourite Shakespeare play.

    I think my babies inherited my love of and taste in music. I had Beethoven on in the car once, and my first-born – while still in the womb – started dancing. And after he was born, when I’d put Beethoven on, he would inch his way over to the stereo and start swaying in front of it. He didn’t do that quite for any other composer. My daughter, one of two-year-old twins, now looks at me with love if I sing something I really like.

    I’m honestly not that keen on most lieder myself – even though my mother was an avid lieder singer (she liked it better than opera). I find French or Russian art song way more moving. (English is a bit twee, except for Elgar.)

    I didn’t know Björling was a Dorothy Dunnett favourite. But when I think about it, I can’t be surprised, given her style of writing. He makes me cry in singing, as only Dorothy Dunnett can in writing.

    Björling for tenors. Rita Streich for light sopranos – hands down. Hence two of my other recommendations. There’s a lot of both singers on Youtube. But if you do like Björling – please, if you can, do listen to the album I recommended – the Atlanta Recital, as it’s called. It’s still available to buy, as I found out last year. I always feel about both of these singers like the reviewer of Game of Kings who wanted to shout from the rooftops about how good it is.

    I read Alastair Dunnett’s autobiography – found it in the local library in my teens, and have just recently found it online to buy. What a beautiful, delicate touch … So I had an idea of their respective interests in music. But I don’t know Johnny Cunningham. I shall look for him on Youtube tomorrow. Being Australian, I’m probably not as well up on Scottish music as I should be – shame on me.

    Very best,

  6. I found Johnny and Phil Cunningham performing together. Wow – that’s some tight, tight playing. Great stuff. Thanks for the recommendation.

  7. I’ve always felt difference in Nicholas and Lymond comes down to Dorothy’s relationship with them. (And perhaps he age when she wrote them.) Lymond is clearly her lover whilst Nicholas is her son. I enjoy both series, but feel a far stronger connection to the characters in LC, as you have so clearly described.

  8. I didn’t appreciate Mozart or Bach until I started singing them (in a chorus; no solos for me). One of my favorite arias is Mache dich, mein Herze rein, with Matti Salminen from the St. Matthew Passion. Tears me apart every time. I have also an LP (…) of Renata Tebaldi in Tosca — yes, her Vissi d’Arte is superb. And Björling and Merrill from The Pearl Fishers — oh, yes! I’m not much on Lieder. OTOH, Kiri Te Kanawa’s Songs from the Auvergne (Canteloube) is divine.

  9. Aren’t Johnny and Phil amazing! Look for Silly Wizard too – they were the first really big Scots folk band after the Scottish folk revival and the combination of the energy with the heart-breaking slow ballads and airs made them fans all over the world.

  10. Yes, every great composer stands on the shoulders of another earlier one. Love the story of dancing in the womb! “The apotheosis of the dance” indeed!
    Lovely that you found Alastair’s biography – it’s delightfully done. He was a wonderful writer in many different forms and his love and pride in Dorothy shines through everywhere.

  11. Hi Robert, curiously, considering the vast amount of discussion I’ve read in the last 20 years, I don’t think I recall ever hearing the lover/son idea put forward before. But it is certainly a very compelling idea once you start to think about it. Thanks, I’ll watch for hints in my next reads.

  12. Oh my. I’ve just read your replies, Bill (sorry – it’s been a very big and busy few months), and I’ve looked up Silly Wizard.

    Now, I have to confess, I have difficulty listening to this.

    For quite a few of their songs, I feel I need subtitles. I’m sorry – I’m Australian. I’ve worked with and befriended a few Scots here. For one Glaswegian especially (who brought the bread in at 6am when I started as a supermarket bakery manager) it took me a few weeks to get my ear in … Other Scottish friends mentioned their family in Scotland said they’d picked up Australian accents from years of living here. But … no … they were still quite strongly lowland Scots.

    But anyway … The other reason is the raw sound and emotion in this music. I love it, even while it makes me ever so slightly uncomfortable.

    I also rather like the idea of Lymond as lover and Nicholas as son. Although that is not to say, I think, that one can’t sometimes imagine putting a young Lymond over one’s knee and giving him a good spanking.

  13. While being a native I find Andy M Stewart’s accent to be a gentle lilt, I can understand why others might not find it so easy! Phil has done a few documentaries and I think his accent is broader now than it was when I knew him! As to the emotional content – oh yes, some of it seems to have a direct line to the heartstrings. Andy’s ballads (many of which people assume are old traditional songs but which he wrote himself) were often extremely poignant, while Johnnie’s slow airs and Phil’s delicate cascading accompaniments can just grab your heart and squeeze. “Music, the knife without a hilt” indeed. Not to mention that glorious description “dipping the phrases in acid and wiping them clean again”.

  14. I love that second one in Queen’s Play. Such an astute description of the power of a musician (including – yes! – these guys).

    In some ways it saddens me that I think we’ve lost a lot of the sense of mystery in music that people must have had in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as our understanding of science, medicine and astronomy has advanced.

    I always find it a bit sad, too, that Lymond could not have known Bach, for example. I think he’d have loved Bach.

  15. Yes it’s a classic line. And yes, in many ways music has become rather ubiquitous – used for advertising etc. in ways that rob it of its special nature, so that when some really wonderful music is written it tends to get lost in the miasma of musak. I’ve often pondered on the way musicians (and sound engineers like myself to some extent) think in different ways to those who aren’t trained in music, and how they are perceived by the “normal” people – both the fans who adore them and those who don’t “get” music at all. Must be akin to magic to some degree.

    (Grin) I’ve just had a flash thought of Lymond sitting at a catheral organ playing the Toccata and Fugue – maybe the one in Cologne with the unbelievable bass pipes. Now that is a thought to conjure with!

  16. Oooh, that is a wonderful image. 🙂

    But now here’s a game. Top three keyboard pieces I can see, and would love to hear, Lymond play:

    * Claire de Lune (Debussy) – not my favourite piece, but I reckon Lymond would nail it

    * Liebestraum 3 (Liszt)

    * Prelude in E Minor (Chopin)

    (Links are just to some of my favourite versions.)

  17. No question he would produce sensitive performances on those three, but surely, as a former Voevoda of Russia, and with his flair for the dramatic, Lymond would play Rachmaninov! – and it would be GLORIOUS! 😉

  18. Ooohh, now I want to sing O dolga budu ja, with him playing! But OK, I’ll settle for Piano Concerto 2 or Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. 🙂 Is it cheating to pick a whole concerto?

  19. Thank you for all the comments. Than, you even more for the lovely music selections.
    I have read DorotyDunnett for several decades. Always a new challenge. Always wonderful.

  20. Who would I be willing to give my heart to, Lymond or Niccolo?

    I’ve fallen in love with charismatic, idealistic, fascinating eye-candy before, and in Lymond I recognize so many red flags that I prefer to keep his ilk at an entertaining distance. He might offer a night or two of exquisitely romantic pleasure; but the fallout is sure to be prolonged and heartrending. He is always on the verge of self-destruction – suicide by masquerading as a drunkard; suicide by opium addiction; suicide by adventure adrenaline; suicide by embracing the ultimate Renaissance exit ideal…all of it dressed up in mesmerizing poetry and latin quotations. More power to Phillipa – she’s the perfect badass to handle the handful that is Francis Crawford of Lymond.

    Niccolo was my introduction to the inimitable Dorothy Dunnett, so that most definitely plays into my preference. Also, because his skills and genius are innate, rather than nurtured by privilege and nobility, he’s driven by curiosity, ambition, and the self-absorbed passions of youth. I also been in love with a Claes-type who exuberantly indulges in reciprocating the attentions of many females; and can relate to Gelis’s love/hate attraction.

    With maturity, I’ve found the push/pull of lust and love smooths out; while I don’t imagine Lymond’s mercurial nature will be extinguished until his chronically abused body shuffles off its mortal coil.

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