So, ever so slightly slightly bereft, I somehow have to disentangle and articulate my thoughts on this, the final part of the Lymond Chronicles. After a couple of years’ cool flirting with Game of Kings and Queens’ Play, I was finally dragged mercilessly into the world of these novels, and I already know I’ll love reading them again in the not too distant future. Also, at the risk of sounding like my problematic fave: Christ. To plunge straight into spoilers, only Francis Crawford of Lymond could make such a palaver out of the task of returning to a loving family and living out his days in his homeland with the person who might best be described as his soulmate.
I’ll admit that I was a little bemused by the beautiful, happy ending. So few people died! There wasn’t even an indication of how Francis and Philippa were to live out their days, whether peace and quiet was really theirs to keep, or whether they’d inevitably be drawn back into the political game. Instead, music was rediscovered, and happiness, and that was enough. Of course it was enough — it would be the height of churlishness to begrudge these characters that, but I was surprised that that was what it came to, after all the ambitious machinations Lymond had put himself through. Having struggled against his judgement, and then come largely to trust it, it was disorienting for me to find that really, this was a story about that judgement being so wrong, because he could not let himself be himself. So it came down to choosing between a glorious international career that would kill him young and a more personal existence, where one could safely put one’s own pleasures ahead of the concerns of petty and powerful heads of state. And it did rather make me grumble at what — and who — was lost along the way, just because it took so very much for Francis to admit what he wanted and to let himself accept it into his life.
Still, as the man says, sometimes he seems to exist simply for people to sacrifice themselves to. It’s the bitter reproach of someone who cannot love himself as those around him do, combined with the ego of someone who knows he excels at whatever he turns his mind to. Time and again he’s proven through this series that he struggles with the idea that others might genuinely want to help him, and be capable of doing so. I’m not saying that he never allows his allies to take some of the weight of the world from his shoulders, but it’s a rare occasion that it happens, and entrusted to a rare few who are there to look after him at his weakest. He’s so used to those who love him coming to grief that he tries not to let anyone love him. It sounds so much like typical masculine stoicism that you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes if that were all you knew of Lymond, but Dunnett remains far too sophisticated for such unappealing, shallow clichés. Lymond is no macho man who needs softening, but a suicidal depressive who loves music and poetry above all else and thinks he must prioritise everyone but him because there is no place in the world for him just as he is.
Here in Checkmate, Lymond finds himself backed into a corner by his own contradictory expectations of himself and the world. Forced to stay away from Russia, which itself might not offer the warmest welcome were he to return, he instead cultivates the favour of the French king, and Dunnett weaves in elements of the opulent debauchery of Queens’ Play in line with the familiar court setting. It’s meant to be an obligation of a year only, endured so that in the end he will be granted his divorce from Philippa and he will be free to return to Russia. On top of all this, he struggles with three separate, but interlinked, problems: 1) he knows that Richard is not his full brother, and that it is their mother who broke her vows, not the deceased second Baron of Culter. 2) Richard gave him a pretty severe concussion when they last met, and it has lasting effects in the form of headaches and episodes of blindness. 3) He’s hopelessly, helplessly in love with Philippa, but thinks that he must protect her from this and get as far away from her as possible. Add to this the French war against, well, everyone, the burgeoning tensions between Protestants and Catholics in France and Scotland, the various prospects of Lymond’s men — from the vanished Guthrie and Hoddim to Jerott’s disastrous marriage to Lymond’s troublesome sister Marthe — and, not least, Philippa’s realisation that she is as hopelessly in love with Lymond as he is with her, and you’ve got a hell of a lot going on in one novel. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the ever-present meddling of occultists.
It’s maybe a little too much, though Dunnett balances the detail well, maintaining her awesome sense of historical place and atmosphere even when it all gets a bit overwrought. I think this is a case of ymmv in parts, though if you’ve got this far in the series then I imagine you do have the mileage for it. The combination of sixteenth-century medical understanding with the delicacy of Dunnett’s own description makes Lymond’s great sickness a little bit frustratingly vague for this particular modern reader, though it could of course have been far worse. A crisis of the nerves or the flesh or both, it is a mysterious enough ailment for his contemporaries as well as being one with a root cause in a blow to the head that is partially cured by another blow to the head. I rolled my eyes a lot at the repeated implication that he just needed a good shag (thanks Jerott, classy as ever), but at least this was evened out by Dunnett’s careful, sympathetic handling of Philippa.
I mean, she did also put Philippa into a position where she had to ‘throw herself into the gutter’ alongside Francis (to paraphrase) to achieve what she thought was right, but there, above all, it’s the miscommunication that annoys me, and in the context of the novel rather than in the context of the author’s decision. Francis made the same mistake he always makes: he does not trust those around him, he does not talk to them openly about personal matters that he knows they are invested in, and then they act in a certain way, trying to help, but without some crucial insight or information, or even just the support of Francis in doing so, and Things Go Wrong. Poor Philippa. I was kind of furious at first, but to her credit Dunnett let it be horrific: in the aftermath, she let all kinds of arguments be made, by Francis’ own body during his naked swim and by Marthe, with her blunt, harsh take on the world. But post-traumatic stress can’t simply be talked or imagined away. In the end, I found the use of shock and the fear of loss to be a more convincing argument for why Philippa might be able to enter into a physical relationship than I expected, although it was somewhat tarnished by the late aside that has she just let Francis near her at Sevigny she’d have gotten over her PTSD anyway. Ok ok, but maybe this is the stuff some people read these for. This is the romance in the romance novel. And for the most part, Philippa and Francis’ relationship is beautifully done: from her Francis-esque disguise in Lyons, to their frantic, hilarious scramble through the city’s streets, evading certain death as they quote poetry to each other in multiple languages. Even their ridiculous, stubborn admissions of love and the half-formed relationship recounted by Strozzi and Adam Blacklock creates a satisfying picture of two people who are perfectly matched.
Around them, not all the other characters are so lucky, even in this sprawling, lengthy book (with, I say again, surprisingly few fatalities). Richard Crawford seems to have forgotten his personality on a beach in Aberdeenshire, leaving him little more than a scowling, suspicious, Calvinist hulk. Kate, when present, is a delight as ever, and she does at least get her own happy ending with Adam Blacklock (I didn’t know I shipped it until it was suggested and then I was all over it), but she’s put through a lot in the meantime. Adam himself hasn’t recovered much of the depth and motivation we last saw directly in Disorderly Knights, sadly. Marthe… well, what to say about Marthe and Jerott? I could write them a whole blog post of their own. But let’s stick to the facts: 1) I am still convinced that Jerott loves Francis and that Marthe’s just a cypher for those feelings, and the more Dunnett tells me he loves Marthe the more I find myself squinting at the page in confusion. 2) Marthe could have been the sex-positive bisexual Muslim character of our wildest dreams! Instead she’s the absolute worst person at reading others, someone who cares so little about anyone or anything that she’s little more than piss and vinegar in a pretty face. And she deserved so much better. And I know that’s kind of the point of her: she was essentially ‘bred’ by La Dame de Doubtance, but, being female, was not destined for greatness as a male child would have been. She was used and trained her whole life in order to fulfill someone else’s destiny, and damn right she’s bitter about it. Francis even steals her girlfriend, for goodness’ sake. But much as I still want to love Marthe, Jerott himself puts it best: Lymond has a ‘secret door’, but Marthe does not. And this is entirely down to the way Dunnett writes her. It’s a great pity.
Then again, I never did like the idea that the whole thing was orchestrated by La Dame from the get-go, not least as I barely remember anything about the events of Queens’ Play that since turned out to be so significant. I’m particularly salty about the idea that dear Archie Abernethy was only ever there because he was La Dame’s man. It’s very much a case of personal preference: even when a story contains prophecies and predictions, I’m accustomed to them coming early, and then watching the characters’ responses to them. It seems somehow crueler to only reveal the web they’ve been trapped in afterwards. It’s also hard knowing so little about La Dame herself and her motivations, but I hope that a re-read will make that clearer anyway. I sense that, were life long enough, this is a series one could just read endlessly, round and round, driving at new observations each time. Although I’m not sure I’d ever understand some of the scenes, where my response is far too emotional to appreciate the author’s superior cleverness (and you wonder why I like Jerott Blyth so much…)
I’m sorry if this seems like a very negative note to end the series on. I don’t mean it to be. Anything I don’t mention you can probably assume fairly safely that I loved. There was an awful lot to get through in Checkmate, and Dunnett did it with her usual panache: it was witty, clever, emotionally draining and thrilling right up until the close (though funnily enough, that final revelation about Lymond’s inheritance was the only part of the ending I guessed far in advance). The research that went into these novels is utterly staggering, and yet it never once strangles plot or action or personality. Every character, from the grand historical figures to the minor, disposable characters (Sheemy Wurmit, I remember you and I miss you!) is plausibly human and seems filled with the endless possibilities of humanity. I hope I will continue to enjoy that aspect of Dunnett’s writing, even when re-reading in the knowledge that La Dame had the whole thing planned out.