Confessions of a Dunnett Reader
A reprise of my own first read of the two main series, as revealed in the Dunnett Newsletters that I used to send out while working with James Thin between the late 1990's and early 2000's.
When I first created the original Dunnett pages I had not yet read the books - I knew everything there was to know about the availability and reissuing of them at the time but nothing of the contents. As I've described elsewhere in this site I soon realised that I must read them, and as an addition to the newsletters I started describing my first impressions. These were very well received with many warm and helpful comments, and I've learned since that watching a new reader absorb the enthralling contents and fall in love with both the writing and characters is a fascinating and enjoyable experence.
It's also wonderful for me to be able to look back and see what I really thought in my own words - if you rely on memory it's far too easy to be misled about when you realised various plot points or changed your mind on certain key topics.
So here are the relevent passages extracted from those early missives.
21st October 1997 - Game of Kings and Queens' Play
Game of Kings was read in the summer of that year - I remember reading the first 30 or so pages and then, realising that this was far more complex and with far more connected references than I'd expected, I went back and re-read them again with a far more concentrated mindset.
"Finally, I promised some of you I would give you my own reactions to reading the first two Lymonds. Anyone else who isn't interested can stop here!!
Haven't had time to really sit down and think about this properly but here goes. First of all I enjoyed them immensly and as some of you predicted I was soon sucked in to forgetting about minor things like eating and sleeping! I think my wife Fiona was pretty astonished because I don't read much fiction since I find most of it pretty shallow, and I've never really enjoyed historical fiction from most other authors since I was a teenager.
I've heard one or two people on the usenet historical fiction group say that they found Game of Kings hard going at first or sometimes harder than some of the later books, and I can understand why although I was ok with it myself once I got used to the fact that I was really going to have to think as I read. Certainly my Scottish historical and geographical background was a great help although I did occasionally curse our habit of having lots of people with similar names! (Far too many Margarets for a start!!) Once the ground had been laid Francis emerged as a fascinating figure and very attractive to both sexes. My only slight quibble was how anyone could possibly be that well educated and experienced in so many things at such an early stage in his life, but that was soon forgotten. Sybilla is likewise a wonderful character but initially Richard seemed dull and predictable. Only later did he start to grow on me and I realised that while I might like to think of myself in Francis' place I'm really much more like Richard in reality. The transformation of his attitude after the sworfight and shooting was startling.
The amnesia episode still leaves me wondering a little bit, and I'm told that many new readers go off the rails there. Christian Stewart was a lovely character and I was sad indeed when I realised that she would be unlikely to survive. But then it looks as if her death is quite an influence on Francis' developement so perhaps it was inevitable.
It was hardly surprising given Dorothy's reputation for historical accuracy that the episode of the young Queen Mary's short visit to the priory at Menteith was confirmed in a radio program that I heard shortly after reading it.
The first meeting with the young Philippa was a harrowing way to start a long term relationship and laid so many possibilities for the future. I must confess the ending was something of a surprise in the dramatic slowing of the tempo during the courtroom scenes but tension was palpable and the card playing twist from the games Will Scott had played with Jonathan Crouch was masterly."
Queens' Play was read on my solo holiday in Bohinj, Slovenia, after a few weeks in between. In fact I went back and re-read some of Game of Kings to be sure that I was sufficiently immersed in the characters and writing style to properly appreciate the second book.
Queens' Play had quite a different feel to it, though perhaps that is inevitable given the setting. The pace seemed faster despite the descriptions being necessarily more lavish. The rooftop race scene was positively breathless of course.
I'd be fascinated to know how many people spotted the twist of the Keeper of the Royal Menagerie. Being Scottish the name Abernaci rang alarm bells immediately – well, almost immediately, the knife throwing/ink bottle scene was doubtless there to distract us?! Of course it coming not long after the initial puzzle of which of the Irish party was actually Lymond was sneaky too! I laughed out loud helplessly when the Frenchman mentioned "Ue" the elephant, and got a few funny looks from the people sitting quietly drinking outside the hotel in Slovenia where I was reading it.
Robin Stewart being the would-be assasin was rather more of a surprise though perhaps I should have been expecting it by then – the hunting cheetah scene had put me off the scent I think. Thady Boy Ballagh was a wonderful invention with which to entwine the hero, with all the contradictions of debauched excess and chivalrous brinkmanship inescapeably intertwined.
The ending was again unexpected, but in some ways perhaps even more subtle than its predecessor in the disgrace of d'Aubigny and the interplay with Mary of Guise. A satisfying conclusion. It's a good place to pause and draw breath before continuing with Disorderly Knights. Looking back, so much has faded from concrete memory that I can well understand those who read them again and again – I have a feeling that a few connections are likely to appear shortly!
In summary, everything I had hoped for and expected in the way of stimulating and thought-provoking reading. Believe me, I am not one who would praise it if I thought otherwise (even though it has been suggested that I was being put in an unfair position and I could hardly have admitted to not liking them). Just like Richard probably ??
11th December 1997 - Disorderly Knights and Pawn in Frankincense
Disorderly Knights was read during October 1997, this was at the same time that Dorothy and I started work on the "Questions to Dorothy" feature.
My own continued reading of Lymond.
Thanks for all your comments about my thoughts on GK and QP. I hope all my replies reached those who wrote to me. I've had more trouble with my private mail account and am concerned that some may have gone astray.
There isn't much space here to go into too much detail about Disorderly Knights and Pawn in Frankincense which I just recently finished – I suspect I'll need to re-read them before I do that. So just a few quick impressions.
At first I found DK a little slow, but that was soon dismissed as the pace quickened after the large amount of scene setting necessary to the story. I'm sure that if I re-read it now I'll get many more clues to the subsequent behaviour of Graham Mallett, but at the time I had little idea of what was to come. What an incredible villianous construction he is!! Dealing with an obvious monster is one thing – when that monster is so thoroughly disguised as an angel that everyone trusts him absolutely the chances for disaster are vastly greater.
As the scene moved back to Scotland the sweep of the story became astonishing. Lymonds treatment of Joletta intriuging until the truth of her became apparent, the curious love/hate feelings of Jerrott, the death of Will Scott…. there seemed to be no rest in any chapter from the flood of new twists to be assessed. I had little warning of the “Council of War” at Boghall when suddenly all the clues half-seen or missed entirely were all suddenly brought together in that masterful speech condemning Gabriel against all the obvious appearances. A tour de force that hardly slakened until the dramatic ending quite unlike those of the previous two books.
Pawn in Frankincense was read in November 1997.
I was warned that PF was hard to read and indeed it was. So much cutting between scenes after the two parties split up and ventured into continually changing areas, and the relations between Francis, Jerrott and Marthe in a constant turmoil. I found I was often having to check back a couple of chapters to confirm things and also often referring to the prophecies of the Dame de Doubtance. Phillippa is becoming a wonderful character and must surely figure highly in the last two volumes. The ending is quite staggering. It took me three reads before I was sure that Mikal's treachery was actually a Lymond set-up to get into the Seraglio. Then the sudden switch in fortune of the trial that looked hopeless. I'm still trying to construct the final position of the chess game and I'm not sure if it can actually be done, but the concept is fabulous, the tension unbearable and the agony of Francis' decision can be palpably felt.
Phew!!! Can't decide if I should be re-reading or rushing on with Ringed Castle.
8th May 1998 - Ringed Castle and Checkmate
Ringed Castle ws read in December 97 and Jan 98 but there had to be some re-reading as I was extremely busy at the time and kept losing the thread due to not being able to read continuously.
My own readings.
For those of you who have been following my own readings of Lymond, I can now tell you that I've finished Checkmate!! Having been very short of spare time for a while I saved the last section for my birthday which happily fell on a Sunday and spent a few happy hours totally immersed in the story. The verdict…..absolutely fabulous, loved it from start to finish. Only trouble is, how on earth do you read anything else after it (apart from Niccolo of course).
Looking back to Ringed Castle (which now seems ages ago ) I know some of you have some slight reservations about it – not liking the Lymond we see in Russia. I didn't feel that at all; to me his state was quite natural considering what he had gone through in PF, and I was fascinated to see how he gradually recovered his ability to feel emotions again – playing music for the first time with technical skill but no emotion was a telling link for me, and of course having to play chess with the Tsar must have been agony at first. I could also see why he wanted to return there so much – the freedom that Chancellor noticed in the wonderfully described travels over the frozen rivers, combined with the freedom from the political and emotional baggage which had built up at home. Cold distant and hard he may have been but it was a very necessary stage in his recovery.
Seeing Philippa's further development at the English court was a wonderful bonus for those of us completely smitten by her, and the introduction of John Dee was the sort of thing (like the later Nostradamus) that only Dorothy could have pulled off successfully. The shipwreck was agonising of course – Chancellor was perhaps the closest thing to a real friend Francis had made for a very long time. The negotiations and machinations in London were wonderfully insightful. And of course the House of Revels and afterwards were a delight. Once again the ending was a totally unexpected twist – how does she manage that?
Checkmate was read in April 98 and finished on my birthday - what a present!
What can I say about Checkmate? There is so much in it; I kept looking to see how many pages were left because I was sure that it couldn't possibly be all resolved in such a short number. So many wonderful scenes: F and P escaping through the back streets, the Heroes Banquet that goes hilariously wrong, that achingly beautiful moment when P realizes that he loves her and not Kate, but still wants them to part, the library, Danny taking Sybilla to see Marthe, Adam watching F & P from his window at Sevigny. All of it leading to that incredible ending and the sheer joy of the love scene. The image that will stay with me is of F & P going to see Sybilla afterwards dressed almost like children – after all they've been through it's a delightfully innocent vision. I was simply stunned by the time I'd finished, in the way that people must have felt when Beethoven premiered the 5th symphony.
Well, I must admit there were occasions before starting to read the books when I wondered why on earth you were all *so* devoted to them. Now I know – there really is no other reaction possible is there?
3rd October 1998 - Niccolo Rising
Niccolo Rising was read in July and August. Sadly while I was in Austria on holiday Alastair Dunnett died and I only just got back for the funeral.
While I was on holiday in Austria I finally got a chance to finish reading Niccolo Rising and even moved on to Spring of the Ram, although an overfull schedule since my return has meant I'm stalled about a third of the way through that just now.
So completely different from Lymond of course!! I wasn't really sure that I would like it – how can you possibly follow the best hero and the perfect heroine with anything else? – but once I'd got past the first few chapters of scene-setting the now-familiar exquisite style of the writing carried me on until I began to empathise a bit more with our new “hero”. What a mass of contradictions he is. Unlike Francis who you are always quite sure has the best motives even when he doesn't explain them (when does he ever? ), Nicholas seems to be constantly in a maze of complex and shifting patterns and plans which no-one else can even guess at, although Tobie at least does a pretty good job of trying. One thing I've realised; I'd always rather suspected that business had certain hidden areas – that really successful business has more going on beneath the surface than those of us who are not natural entrepreneurs can guess at. Having read the machinations of the Alum deals I am now quite certain that that is this case!! I wonder which businesses Dorothy got the inspiration from?
Of course I've read so much about Nicholas (on the discussion email lists) that it's difficult to know how objectively I'm reading him and how much I'm influenced by foreknowledge, but he does seem to have hidden agendas that neither his fellow cast nor the reader are privy to. I'm reminded of something I heard Dorothy say at one of her talks here in the shop, when she remarked that he was a person of great abilities but no ambition – no clear idea of what he wanted to do – and that was what the series was about. (Of course she has also said completely different things in other talks!) I will need to go a bit further into the series before I can say too much more but the complexities are already firmly established as a delightful conundrum which will require all my chess-player's analytical abilities to even comprehend – let alone solve!! Perhaps if that other Edinburgh writer, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, had written multi-volume stories they would have been like this!
9th Jan 1999 - Spring of the Ram
Spring of the Ram was read rather fitfully in November and December 1998 as I was extremely busy.
I'm half way through Race of Scorpions at the moment but there is never enough time for reading. Spring of the Ram was a fascinating look at the dying embers of the Byzantine world, and has also got me much more interested in the politics and history of the Mediterranean area.
So often the history books fail to give a real perspective on trade and war in these times and you are left trying to see it through modern eyes and ideas. So much depended on a single ship getting through with its cargo or a single engagement by relatively small armies. And how often have we looked at a flat military plan with it's arrows pointing in all directions but failed to grasp the true significance of the lie of the land, the supply routes, the weather, the politics and internal jostling. Dorothy somehow brings this all to life in a way that seems beyond the dry textbooks (and all other authors).
It has been fascinating to watch Nicholas grow, and the changing opinions of his friends as he does so. At the moment it is easier to identify with him in the hero role – though perhaps not to the extent that you can with Lymond – but his mistakes are either forgiveable in one of his age and experience or are a natural consequence of the conflicts he is set within. (Of course I'm aware that this identification will probably not be so easy in the later books when his motives and morality will be more called into question)
I find myself becoming a little exasperated with Tobie's attitude at the moment – he seems to have impossibly high ideals and is all too ready to criticise when Nicholas fails to meet them. Yes, there is the same unwillingness to explain himself that Lymond suffers from, but I find myself thinking that someone of Tobie's intelligence should be seeing and understanding more than he does.
It's probably a bit soon yet to give an opinion on most of the bigger questions that have so far turned up – but maybe on some of them.
Did he love Marion? Yes I'm pretty sure he did. Maybe the nature of it changed a bit but he seems very genuine in it.
Did he deliberately sink the cannon? Hmm, I'm doubtful about that unless he was even more precocious than he seems and there was a very deep motive involving others plotting in Scotland.
Did he engineer Felix death? No, I can't see any evidence of that.
There are of course lots of questions, but I need to read more and then examine my instinctive reaction before posing them.
12th January 2000 - Race of Scorpions, Scales of Gold, and Unicorn Hunt
There was a large gap to this next one, mostly due to the big developments that were going on with the James Thin website and ordering system. As a result there is more of an overall feel to it rather than looking at the individual books.
It's a long time since I gave you any of my own impressions – in fact it was away back when I first started Niccolo Rising and Spring of the Ram. Partly due to lack of space and partly due to my inconsistent reading patterns I've never really had a chance to follow up on this, but there is also the fact that in many ways it's harder to talk about the individual Niccolos in isolation because there is much less separation in the volumes and more inter-relation between different scenes spread right across the series. I am now part way through To Lie with Lions and in some ways I feel I'm only now beginning to see the threads develop in a way that can be understood and theorised about. Whether they are being understood correctly of course is another matter entirely!!
General impressions – I liked Katelina in many ways but she wasn't the highly intelligent heroine that she would have needed to be to be the star of the story – or even to survive. She seemed to be rather born out of her time as well, and wanted a level of romance in her life which maybe wasn't possible in that time. She sadly didn't have the foresight to accept a marriage to a much older man which would then later release her to a position of more independence. In as much as he could at the time I rather think Nick did love her or at least was very fond of her, but he is lacking part of the character makeup that would allow him to really commit to her even if she hadn't been married to Simon by then. I'm sure he was able to love Marion – but it was partly a mother substitute feeling rather than a well-rounded love. I know some people criticise Nick and Katelina for the waterfall scene, but I have more sympathy for them. Quite apart from the aftermath of the rescue from a phobic death I think that Katelina was on an emotional roller-coaster caused by living with Simon and FFJ and thinking alternately that she loved/hated/loved Nick. It's an intensly emotional moment and the sort of reaction that real human beings would have.
Like, I'm sure, many others, I didn't like Gelis as a youngster and then came to like her a lot in the African sections of Scales of Gold. The manner of the betrayal, and the realisation that it all must have been planned for a long time and carried through with Oscar-winning acting ability was a stunning shock. I've been noting the times in the later books when we (often unexpectedly) get her point of view and it seems confused and frightened underneath the iron composure. Where has she received these ideas about Nicholas, and whose viewpoint has influenced her? – it seems to me that there is more going on than just revenge for her sister and that someone has been feeding her a very biased view for their own ends, but who? It would surely have to be someone who goes back a long way, so is it an enemy or could it be someone we think is a friend?
Which brings us to Anselm Adorne – hero or villain, is he part of the Vatachino from the beginning or does he merely join in an alliance with them after the Cairo/Sinai events. At the moment I'm inclined to believe him basically honourable and sometimes causing harm in the midst of business ventures as happens sometimes.
Kathi is a delight – a real breath of fresh air – and I can see why some people would like her to be The One as the similarities with Phillippa are striking. A bright intellect and a very sensitive nature – maybe even a touch of psychic ability too – she seems one of the very few to have any real understanding of Nicholas. Though of course no-one really knows him because he doesn't yet know himself.
Has he even yet recovered from Umar's death and the later revelations about the manner of it I wonder. It's hard to overstate just how much his world must have fallen apart with the combined effects of the news on the wedding night after having been so happy beforehand. Obviously Simon bore much of the brunt of his anger at the Salt Pans and it was in some ways surprising that he didn't kill him – but then that never seems to be his aim.
Of the others, Tobie seems to vary alarmingly in regards to when he's sympathetic and when he isn't, while Julius seems to be a complete airhead!! How can he run a bank and be so lacking in awareness? I do however like John's typically Scots engineer's logic and attitude, and he occasionally has some great lines.
Well I could go on like this for pages and pages but I'd better stop for now. Once I finish TLWL and C&R I'll see if I can come to any more profound (?) views about what going to happen next and where the connections are…. and then they'll no doubt be demolished completely by Gemini! For any real insight I'm sure a number of re-reads are mandatory – what a pity we can't read in our sleep!
7th May 2001 - To Lie With Lions, Caprice and Rondo, and Gemini
Again there was a long gap - the release of Gemini and the occasion of 2000 Edinburgh Gathering were just some of the things that got in the way of a final report. I had read to the end of Caprice and Rondo before Gemini came out, so I could immediately dive into it, but there was so much to assimilate before coming to any reliable conclusions about it. Indeed in some ways I'm still doing so 18 years later!
THE RETURN OF CONFESSIONS OF A DUNNETT READER
It's quite a while since I last gave you “Confessions of a Dunnett Reader”, and perhaps it is in any case a rather different beast now than back in the days when I was a novice reader working my way through the LC and reviving everyone's memories of their own first time.
A year ago I was on holiday on the island of Islay, and struck down with the flu, was reading the Icelandic scenes of TWLW – an interesting exercise when lapsing in and out of fever and dreaming some very strange dreams during which I was totally convinced that I had complete understanding of the entire series. For some reason I couldn't quite remember the secrets when I returned to the land of the feverless!!
TLWL struck a number of chords with me, the most important being the relationship between Nicholas and Kathi. That they are spiritually close is by now a given, and this is of course continued through the rest of the series. Some people have problems with the fact that he seeks her out for some activities and that there are some areas that he and Gelis never share – music being the most obvious. Many of these readers find it difficult to allow him to have two “loves”. My own take on this is coloured by an unhappiness with a common social attitude that has been prevalent, at least in this country, until very recently, which says that it is impossible for married men to have a friendship with another woman without sex being involved. This is an attitude I have always disliked because I've often found myself having friendships with women and vehemently object when it is assumed that there is something else going on.
I have long believed that in the HN Dorothy was giving us a story that was much more like real life than the obviously heroic story of Lymond. In the LC it was natural that L & P would turn out to be soul-mates and compliment each other in every way – the perfect match. Though for the most part hardly romantic at all, the LC was in its later stages the ultimate in heroic romance. She'd done that and HN was always going to be very different. To me Nick's relationship with Gelis is much more like a real marriage – if you ignore for the moment the years of conflict over Jodi; and therefore his other relationship with Kathi needs to be seen in the same light. In real life men and women often relate fine on one level but not at all on another – how many wives completely fail to understand what it means to their husbands to play golf, or climb mountains, or play music or chess or even just go out with the lads every now and again. Naturally it works the other way too and husbands totally miss the point over some aspect of their wives' activities that means nothing to them. Yet these are often perfectly stable and fulfilling marriages. This is what we see in the Nick, Gelis, Kathie triangle (though as always with Dorothy there is more going on as well) – Nick and Gelis have a great shared interest in the mechanics of trade and business and she is his equal in this area. There is also their wonderful sexual compatibility which is illustrated so well later on in C&R and Gemini. However she doesn't have music in her skill set and this becomes an area which is essential to Nick's existence – without someone to share this with he isn't whole. I don't see this as some people do as meaning that he needs two loves, in fact Kathi could just have easily have been male in this respect, merely that in real life we find different elements of contact in different people. Admittedly we see far less of Gelis' side of the story, which is perhaps a shame but then the series would have ended up being another couple of volumes long and practical considerations always have to be born in mind. The thought occurs that there is an amusing contrast in things that Nicholas and Lymond have to learn in their respective journeys – Nick has to learn that you can love someone without sex being involved; Lymond took a long time to realise that you could have sex and that love *could* also be involved!
However, to return to TLWL, one of the things I most enjoyed about it was seeing Nicholas put back into a more basic and unrefined arena than the high-politics one in which he usually operates. Seeing how he wins over a native population who have no reason to side with him other than what they see of his character. He is also nicely contrasted with Pauel Beneke, who is first his opponent and then an essential part of his small party who have to work together to survive in a hostile environment. Their later relationship in Poland is perhaps the ultimate expression of the sort of male friendship that is seen in football or rugby team-mates who play hard , fight hard and drink hard – who would come close to killing each other in a fight but would as certainly defend each other to the death if required. The very opposite of the platonic man-woman relationship that exists between Nick and Kathi.
This is of necessity a short summary of reactions which omits a great deal of importance to the series and is coloured by the continued readings of the later books, and the discussions on the various internet groups, which even when I can't keep up enough to contribute in I try to keep up with reading. I moved on to Caprice and Rondo in that same April of last year – desperate to finish it before Gemini appeared so I could approach that with the required perspective along with everyone else. Just as I never entirely subscribed to the “Lymond as Ice-Man” approach to RC, seeing instead the re-emergence from an isolated period that was the inevitable result of the trauma of PiF, I didn't feel the same horror at the Nick descending to the depths of depravity interpretation which many see in C&R's early chapters. Yes he was close to giving it all up and going off with Beneke to a pirate's live, yes he was careless of his own and other lives in a way that was unlike him, but to me it was always going to be an episode that was a relief from the tangled life and only-hinted-at complex responsibility of his extended family. I had no doubt that he would revert to his normal self, if such a thing can be said of a man who is gradually learning a broader perspective that someone of his station in life should normally have had as part of their upbringing We are of course continually kept guessing at his true morality – his gallant offering of his bow to Adorne to avoid the other's humiliation despite their apparent position as enemies is immediately contrasted with his wounding of Julius in mysterious circumstances. And what on earth is going on between him and Anna during the trip south to Caffa and beyond? And yet by then one has the feeling that he is back in command of a basically moral attitude which we have to contrast with some other dubious episodes such as the “Scottish Plan”. Then of course we have the reappearance of Ludovico de Bologna who has been cast as the annoying interfering religious bigot for much of the series, but is gradually being seen in a rather more positive light. If I was a genius or a charlatan I would now claim to have immediately spotted the required reassessment of the early denouncement of Julius by this same curious churchman. Alas I can claim no such flash of inspiration but only a gradual and growing awareness that things may not be what they seem in all the old relationships
And so my first-reading diaries come to an end. Looking back at them there are differences between the reactions to the two series. Partly this is because of the inherent differences between them, and partly it's because my own reactions to them are different - something I discuss to some degree in a post called Comparions and Connections on the blog. In addition I was already a much more experienced reader by the time I was halfway through House of Niccolo than I had been when I started the Lymond Chronicles. I had thought I was a fairly knowledgeable reader and familiar with the qualities of pace, rhythm, phrasing and plot and character construction. I had been amazed and delighted to find that there was another plane far above my previous exposure. Dorothy taught me to read at a higher level, and in doing so also taught me how to improve my own writing.
I have written a lot about the books, particularly the Chronicles, since then, examining scenes and characters in quite intense detail, but it's always useful to be able to return to those first impressions and the memories they trigger, and remember that you only saw a small fraction of the insights that you've since gathered. And more than anything else remember the sheer pleasure of those first reads and the shocks and surprises and revelations that they produced.