Friday, April 19, 2013

Dorothy Dunnet's THE DISORDERLY KNIGHTS #OneBookAtATime

Oh, Lymond, Lymond, how I do want to love thee. And every book you almost, almost talk me out of it. Every book you look guilty as hell of whatever crimes most have all of Scotland/France/Malta/Wherever up in arms, and every book you turn out to be, well, I'm trying not to spoil anything here, but there are three more books in this series, so certain truths are probably pretty evident, even to the kinds of people you're so very, very good at fooling...

The Disorderly Knights, the third in the great Dorothy Dunnet's great Lymond Chronicles, broadens the geographic, political and moral scope of our favorite Renaissance bad boy considerably. The Knights of the title are none other than the famous Hospitallers, aka the Knights of Malta -- though an argument could be made for that title also applying to a mercenary company our man forms when he finally gets back to Scotland about halfway through the novel -- and they're in a bit of a pickle, one that the King of France seems to think Lymond might be able to help them out of, or at least bear honest witness to. The King of France being something of a Lymond fanboy after Lymond's exploits last novel in defense of the six-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, who is engaged to marry the King's son. Ah, dynastic politics!

The problem the Hospitallers face is the same one they were formed to face, namely the Turk, whom they've helped to protect Europe and bits of North Africa from for a good 400 years. But as of the late 16th century, though, well, the Knights have gone a bit to seed. The Grand Master is a bit of a jerk, and a Spanish jerk at that, and the Holy Roman Emperor being Spanish as well, unseating the GM and putting an effective leader in charge is tricky, especially when the good candidates for that job are all either French or Scottish...

Really there's only one Scottish candidate, though, a man in whom our Lymond has definitely met his match. Sir Graham Reid Mallett, nicknamed Gabriel, is everything Lymond is but turned up a notch: a great big gorgeous blue-eyed blonde who is also a genius, a brilliant leader of men, a great strategist, fighter and tactician, but also a holy man, because like the more famous Templars, the Hospitallers are all warrior monks, in the service of God and the Roman Catholic Church, priests with swords. When he and Lymond meet up, the whole world seems fixed to change. Gabriel becomes obsessed with winning Lymond over for Jeebus and won't take no for an answer; Lymond, of course, is loyal only to Scotland and his family and finds religion profoundly unnecessary, if not actually detrimental to a well-lived life. But like I said, Gabriel won't take no for an answer, and soon insinuates himself into every possible aspect of Lymond's life as the duo and a small contingent of Hospitallers first fail to defend various tiny Mediterranean islands from the Turkish onslaught and then, for an encore, lose the famous stronghold city of Tripoli to the Turks. Oops.

Covered in glory like that, what can they do but return to Scotland, where Gabriel has stashed his drop-dead gorgeous sister, Joleta, whom he has already intimated is his ace in the hole (umm) as far as winning Lymond's soul for Christ is concerned, because of course Lymond will convert for the privilege of maybe getting to schtup her. Really, kind of a Lymond thing to hope to do, as Lymond has, more than once, proven that he's not above seducing the odd strategically important round-heeled woman to achieve his goals. Did I mention Lymond has met his match here? Except that now we find there are two of them!

Of course by about two thirds of the way through the novel, the reader discovers she's misread pretty much everything, because the only person better at deception and red herringry than Lymond is his creator, Ms. Dunnett. But when it's artistes like these, it's a pleasure so to be fooled.

Meanwhile, there is everything one would turn to some good historical fiction like this in order to enjoy: more amazing sword fights, sieges, battles of all sorts, border reivers and the Hot Trodd law (and lots of other weird Renaissance English/Scottish border law), sexual politics and oh, about the sexual politics...

I've not yet mentioned the women of The Disorderly Knights, apart from the sex bomb Joleta, who is really the least interesting figure in the book. Most of my old favorites are back and getting good page time, with Lymond's mother Sybilla stealing scenes as usual, but also of note are two others, who come to the fore in this novel after kind of making me yawn in The Game of Kings and Queens Play: Oonagh O'Dwyer -- former mistress of a would-be king of Ireland, who spent most of Queens Play trying to abet her man in his plots to conspire with the French and Scots to throw the English out of Ireland (we all know how well that worked), only to have an encounter with Lymond that looks to turn out to be way more important than it seemed at the time -- and Philippa Somerville, twelve or thirteen-year-old daughter of an English lord who was friendly with Lymond back in the day but who herself hates Lymond like poison and spends a lot of The Disorderly Knights just entertainingly gnashing her teeth at him until circumstances and her own sense of fair play cause her to woman up and kick about 20 kinds of ass all over northern England and southern Scotland and become my new favorite Dorothy Dunnett lady.*

So I find myself so eager to tear into the next book, Pawn in Frankincense, that I don't see any reason not to, even though lots of other good stuff beckons from my to-be-read pile. I was warned that this might happen.

*Though her presence reminds me that my other favorite bratty Dunnett tween, Lady Agnes, has disappeared completely from this narrative, and that makes me a little sad. Agnes does not hold a candle to Philippa in the awesomeness department, but she was terribly amusing in The Game of Kings and I miss her a lot.


  1. There seems to be a stratum of genre readers who just adore Dunnett's work. I need to try it.

    1. You really should, Paul. She's ever so challenging but worth the work. Like a high quality Game of Thrones except 1. Historical and 2. No magic.

  2. 2013 and you're only now discovering DD? I'm jealous of you reading these books for the first time. I just last night finished rereading DISORDERLY KNIGHTS for the 4th or 5th time (which is how I wound up on this page). I enjoy the books more every time I read them. (It's no wonder so many people call Dorothy Dunnett "the only author you'll ever need.")

    1. I discovered her first when I was a teenager, but made the mistake of trying the Niccolo Rising books (and I think I got those out of order in my tiny town's tiny library) and sort of butt my head against them and forgot her for a while. Now I look forward to giving those another shot as well! If I can bring myself not to start right over again with Lymond after I finish Checkmate (which, I'm delaying the start on that because I can't bear to finish this series!).

      I can see how she could become the Only Author. I suspect a lot of people re-read the Lymond Chronicles through over and over again and lose many happy years/months to her 8)

    2. The only caution about Niccolo is that the style is VERY different. Gone are the flourishes and purple prose (and fun!) of the Lymond series. Niccolo is about trade, not chivalry, about building the world that (100 years later) made it possible to swan about in castles and be witty for a living (jk).

      Also, the historical period and settings are far less familiar than the Tudor/Elizabethan setting of Lymond. Niccolo goes through the revolution in Cypress, the fate of Trebizond, the African gold and slave trades, the fall of Burgundy, and other things you never studied in school. So it is harder going.

      All that said, upon rereads, Niccolo is deeper, more thoughtful, more mysterious and ultimately more satisfying than Lymond. In Lymond you can see DD gain confidence in every book; in Niccolo, she is already a master. It's quite a ride.

      Nothing compares to the gut-punch of PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE, but there are certainly some jaw-droppers in Niccolo.

    3. Yeah, now that I'm grown up enough to find trade and economics interesting, I expect Niccolo will keep my interest XD

  3. Can someone tell me what was the mark on Gabriel's chest in the final fight scene? And why was it a big deal? I was confused about that

    1. SPOILERS!

      The mark was the eight pointed cross which is a symbol of the knights of Malta. The big deal is that Joleta marks her lovers with the sign (literally carves it into them).

  4. I have been a Dunnett fan since girlhood--but am beginning to tire of being bamboozled all the time--crucial information withheld, important plot points disguised. Also, a little bit wondering why Lymond can't, you know, just TELL his friends what's going on, or at least give them a hint, so that they don't feel quite so much like murdering him. Just a thought.


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