Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dorothy Dunnett's QUEENS' PLAY #OneBookAtATime

I still think Francis Crawford of Lymond, the Master of Culter, is basically Lord Flashheart from Blackadder in subtler guise. But now, now he actually seems even more over the top than that.

In Queens' Play, the second of the six Lymond Chronicles, Lymond is amuck in France at the behest of the Scottish Dowager Queen Mother, Mary de Guise, whose seven-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, is being raised at the French court alongside her intended husband, the Dauphin, supposedly to keep her safe from the hated English. The little girl turns out to sorely need a guy like Lymond in her corner, because someone is making some truly outlandish attempts on her life. Elephants and cheetahs are used as would-be murder weapons, to give you some idea.

Ah, but good thing there is Lymond, the most accomplished and capable hero, maybe ever. I kid because I love, but really, there appears to be nothing this guy can't do. He is simply the best at everything, be it dialogue so subtle I'm not even sure he really knows what's going on (I sure never felt like I did, and I supposedly had the third person omniscient narrator on my side), as we already knew from The Game of Kings; fighting and sword play, ditto; disguise, ditto; but also it turns out he can juggle better than a professional entertainer, play all the musical instruments to a similar standard, sing like an angel... seriously, even given that his milieu is Life Before TV and all, who in the world ever had the time and energy to get that good at absolutely everything? I mean, the dude even competes brilliantly at what amounts to Renaissance parkour.

All this, and he spends most of the novel drunk out of his mind, too.

Lymond, in short, is the guy everybody wants on his or her side but whom nobody can be sure actually is, even when they're pretty sure he's said he would be. As in the previous novel, he spends a lot of his time concealing his identity from everyone, including the reader, who often thinks she knows which of the novel's other characters he's impersonating in a given scene but who turns out, often, to be wrong. It makes for maddening reading, but then, this is a great part of the fun, with Lymond, whose mystique Dunnett most carefully maintains by making sure his is the only point of view we never get to share, to whose thoughts we are never privy. Instead, entire, sometimes lengthy, scenes come from the perspective of a throwaway character like, say, a nobleman's wife whose dinner is incommoded, whose superficial impressions of Lymond's appearance and behavior are all we get to work with -- even as Dunnett adds an extra layer of opacity to it all by summarizing dialogue as obliquely as possible. We are often told of, for instance, someone using a unique and colorful phrase, but I guess we are supposed to work out which phrase all on our own? Based on our great erudition regarding all matters lexical, continental and Renaissance?


But amid all the bafflement, there is again some astonishingly good action writing. Swordplay, hunting, horse racing through a tower, the aforementioned Renaissance parkour, all have an immediacy and a breakneck pace that few writers could equal, in any age. It's as though Umberto Eco were writing a script for Tony Scott, or something. And yes, these scenes are well-placed, as if to wake up the reader who is getting a little weary of all the subtlety and archaic wit.

But speaking of wit, or at least of its cousin, humor, the thing that I missed this time around, though, was the entertaining array of supporting characters from the first novel. No Jonathan Crouch types here; everybody is in deadly and often dull earnest, and while the figure of Prince O'Liamroe seems to have been intended as a bit of comic relief in that vein, he's just not as fun. And no counterpart for Sybella or Lady Agnes appears at all. This may be the fault of the setting and the higher stakes, but I missed this element dreadfully, and no amount of cheetah coursing really made up for the lack.

I'm still in for the rest of the Lymond Chronicles, though. I just need some time to rest ze brain a little, from this one.

1 comment:

  1. I read the first one last summer and it took me FOREVER because it's such challenging reading, but it's still so good. I'm not certain I'll continue with the series, but I keep thinking about it...


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