Gosh. Hello world — thanks to all who came to like my last post on the Lymond Chronicles! Following on from that, Monday to Friday, I have been unbearable, with my nose stuck in this book at any possible moment. I’ll say at the outset, before distracted by enthusing and other matters, that, strictly speaking, I do not think this book was quite as good as The Disorderly Knights. But it was still excellent. And I couldn’t put it down. Nevertheless, it was slow at the beginning, and the nature of the story made it feel uneven and piecemeal, though the tension of the plot and the high stakes in every encounter carried it through all this without much impact on the reading experience. I do still have reservations about one element, which I feel guilty for not liking more (I’ll expand on this below). As for interrogating the plausibility of Graham Reid Mallett’s elaborate schemes, of considering the devotion of his allies and lackeys, of finding the threat he holds for so many so plausible…well, let’s say I am not capable of questioning these elements. I trust Dunnett, and for the most part she has a masterful, vicelike grip on her plot and chronology and backstory, and there are very few threads worth pulling at or cracks worth picking at. Certainly not when you’re hurtling through action and emotion with no clue as to what, precisely the ultimate tragedy will involve.
Following the revelations of the full extent of Mallett’s influence and forethought at the close of The Disorderly Knights, we are now plunged headfirst into an absurd, desperate hunt for Francis Crawford’s lover and their illegitimate child. Dunnett, though making it clear that this amount of effort for an unmarried woman and an unknown child would be seen as extraordinary by Crawford’s contemporaries, does not try to make us think for long that Lymond has forgotten Oonagh and Khaireddin. Accompanied by Jerott Blyth, the romantic former monk who seems to have placed all his faith on Lymond’s shoulders, and the dogged, practical Hexham girl Philippa Somerville, Lymond now must make his way around the Mediterranean coasts, playing cat and mouse with Mallett. If he kills Mallett first, Oonagh and his son will be killed too; if he tries to save the children first, Mallett will have time to plot even worse things for Lymond’s friends and loved ones — not to mention the carefully poised empires whose delicate pride could turn them to all-out war at the drop of a hat. Philippa is there to make sure the child is not forgotten, and that all possible is done to save him. Jerott is there for his own reasons — though Dunnett leaves these ambiguous.
It’s in the course of Pawn in Frankincense that I really began to appreciate why fans of these books read and re-read them time and again. This gave me a feeling that is comparable to my first encounter with The Lord of the Rings, where a world is so dense and detailed but the plot so urgent that you know you’re probably missing things in the frantic race to find out what happens. Dunnett also loves to drop reveals and twists in, long after they have begun to affect the characters. The late reveal about the poison in Lymond’s system blindsided me, and it’s only on a re-read that I’ll be able to make much use of this knowledge to interpret the hero’s behaviour. I also worry that in my desperate love for Jerott Blyth — and continual fear that he’d do something rash and ‘helpful’ and end up getting himself killed — I missed clues from Dunnett as to her actual plans for him. I am not quite reconciled to it all, and it makes me as exasperated and worked up as Jerott in that scene in the Algerian palace owned by Güzel.
Oh ok, let’s get the complaint out of the way then. I should love Marthe. I know I should. She’s so smart, she’s got the languages and the poetry and the razor-sharp wit and the ability with all people of all kinds and cultures, and she’s furious with the world because as a woman, and a woman with no family, she has no right to respect or wealth or to make her own choices. God I should love her. I do, when the description is left at that, I suppose. But she’s apparently Francis’ sister. Long lost. Unnamed, unclaimed, unknown. She hates him, because he doesn’t welcome her with open arms, and probably because she doesn’t like the feeling of having to rely on him. He hates her, because she is an unforgiving mirror to his own personality, perhaps also because she is a living, breathing example of what becomes of illegitimate children when their families abandon them, and that’s a sore point with Khaireddin at large.* But despite it all, Marthe is very much her own agent. She has more affinity with the east than the Christian west, and she tells us again and again that she has no interest in men. So I don’t think it’s just protectiveness of my favourite, Jerott, who of course falls head over heels for her, when I complain a little about the execution of this character and her story.
One very prosaic issue have is that the complexities of Marthe’s feelings and background can never be explored in detail, because she is keeping secrets throughout much of the book. Dunnett never gives us Marthe’s point of view, not to the extent where we’d learn anything about her own feelings in any depth, because the author would then presumably have to give away the fact that Marthe knows she’s Francis’ sister, and that she and Gaultier have their own business in Aleppo and Stamboul. And she is so very like Francis anyway that I had to summon the effort to make myself open to liking her, as I had to do initially with Lymond. All this will perhaps be less of a problem on a re-read. But then, in the end, there is no certainty to her claim that she’s his sister: poetry in the DNA and uncannily similar looks have to do, because there’s no other evidence (except that the Dame de Doubtance told Marthe?). Maybe this is explained down the line, but I found it a frustration too far in the isolated context of the one novel.
Oh, and then Jerott. That scene in Algiers. My initial take away, and what I really wanted, was that Jerott looked at Lymond, smelled the Agha on him, and knew his heart i.e. that Marthe was right but he didn’t know how to admit it to himself or articulate it. When Jerott repeatedly declares his love for Marthe I remain baffled: all we really know of her is that she looks and sounds and behaves like Francis, but she happens to be female, and perhaps also because of her illegitimacy my dear melodramatic Chévalier Blyth sees someone who needs saving. So I worry that I simply don’t like Marthe as much as I should because I think Jerott should love Francis and not her. Or, should love both of them equally, as he is frustrated and teased equally by both of them.
But there’s also just the matter of convenience. She’s very convenient for a Dunnett creation, and it seems almost like laziness next to the elaborate care with which the rest of the series is constructed. She is Francis’ sister, but it’s unconfirmed and never really addressed between them until it becomes convenient for her to melt a little and save him from opium with poetry. It ought to have been a touching scene, and it was still, to a degree, but I couldn’t switch off my questions: did La Dame de Doubtance set her up deliberately to be a foil to her brother? Do I have to believe that the old woman genuinely had some mystical powers in order for their similarities to have ended up so uncanny? Again, I thought of Lord of the Rings, and Éowyn softening in the healing rooms of Minas Tirith, learning love and the care of herself through the care of others. I re-read that relatively recently, and despite my fears, I had no feeling of Éowyn’s power and independence being squashed or dismissed: it is a healing moment for her, after the longing for death, it’s a moment where she finds a role in life for herself. And her finding fulfillment in war would not fit with the rest of Tolkien’s message. Meanwhile, Marthe’s transformation felt abrupt, her sudden decision to relent to Jerott came without warning, though the line ‘Kindness. He shall have it’ absolutely wrecked me. Marriage (if that is where this is going) means putting herself in another’s hands in a way that she has been furiously against doing: the significance of her talk with Philippa about helping each other, of her realisation that Francis was disillusioned like her but fought on anyway, just didn’t have the force of impact that these moments ought to have done, because we had no sneak-peek of this side of her in advance (that I recall at least). It is not just that I doubt that she will find it easy to keep that promise of kindness, and that I worry for Jerott’s hurt feelings: I worry because it would mean Marthe giving up one of the few aspects of herself that are unambiguously hers.
Ah well, I’m probably just a bit miffed that having invested so much worry in Jerott, Dunnett very firmly reminded me at the end that this isn’t about him, it’s about Francis. So colour me chastened as I try to re-focus my attentions on the actual hero of the series. And anyway, the main thing about Marthe is that, alongside Kiaya Khátún, Philippa Somerville, Roxana Sultána, Madame Donati, La Dame de Doubtance and others, she complements a varied and powerful cast of female characters. It turns out, after all, that these women drive the book, that it is their actions that hold the balance of power in the game played between Lymond and Mallett, and their unpredictability that can change the arranged outcomes.
Whilst Lymond tries to maintain control of the situation in the only way he knows how, two women initiate their own plans, each for her own reasons: La Dame’s, which is yet to be discovered, Güzel, in pursuit of a long-standing ambition, Marthe, in search of independence, or perhaps hoping to be persuaded that acceptance would also satisfy her, and…Philippa. Philippa who really shouldn’t be called an ordinary, prosaic or plain anything after her iron-willed pursuit of Lymond and his child across Europe and the Middle East. I don’t pretend to understand much about Philippa Somerville, but she’s a force of nature, who Dunnett seems to have far more fun writing than the elegant, the mysterious and the cultured women of power.
And throughout, Francis is fighting against all of Mallett’s advance preparation, in ignorance of the women’s plotting, and doing so in territories where Mallett seemingly has more allies. He’s two steps behind from the outset, and it’s only gradually that we realise quote how vast these steps are: one child becomes two, a betrayal within his crew turns out to have been orchestrated from near the beginning of the story, and no amount of bluffing can help his case. The confrontation at Zuara is a pivotal moment in the drama here, where we learn the full consequences if Lymond makes the wrong move, or the wrong choice. When, in the end, that it precisely what he appears to do (the book is painfully ambiguous, and I can reason with myself either way, but things lean in a particular direction all the same), it is heartbreaking, and immediately irrevocable.
I hope I haven’t sounded too critical here. I loved this book. If The Disorderly Knights finally got me with its claws, Pawn in Frankincense gripped me by the throat and wouldn’t let go until the fight had been shaken out of me. It made me laugh, it left me appalled, it made me smile like a love-struck idiot on public transport and it probably ruined my chances of making friends at my new job, because my nose was stuck in this book for the first week. I can’t wait to read it again.
*Obviously, in order to write this review, I had to prise myself away from The Ringed Castle, in which Philippa learns lots of interesting things about Lymond’s family. I think now that part of his resentment of Marthe must be that he sees one parent in particular in her similarity to him…