Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dorothy Dunnett's THE RINGED CASTLE

I could just make this a three word review, you guys. Lymond in Russia. Got that? Lymond in Russia. LYMOND IN RUSSIA YOU GUYS okay that is five but maybe you get it.

But The Ringed Castle, being a Dorothy Dunnett novel and a volume of the Lymond Chronicles, of course has even more than that going on. And a lot of what is going on concerns Lymond only indirectly; it may be all about him, but the action, the intrigue, the driving force, mostly comes from the great and mighty Philippa nee Somerville, his child-bride-on-paper, whom he has sent along back to the British isles while he has moved on to Russia, there to train and equip Ivan the Terrible's army. As one does when one is a mercenary captain, sort-of-nobleman and stubborn Renaissance Man of whom no one is the boss.

Philippa has landed on her feet, back home in England, by which I mean landed a position in the court of Bloody Mary. She's a first-hand witness to that sad queen's phantom pregnancy, frustrating marriage, paranoia about her sister Elizabeth, and all the intrigues of court life ca. Mary Tudor's reign -- but that's not what interests Philippa. No. What interests Philippa is the strange case of Marthe, who traveled with Team Lymond last novel, caused lots of ruckus in her own right, then totally upset the spinet cart by revealing that actually, she's Lymond's sister. But she, ah, didn't grow up in Culter, did she? And she looks pretty much exactly like a female Lymond, so no one thinks she's just an illegitimate half-sister. Something funny was clearly going on in the Crawford family a generation ago. And Philippa is hell-bent on finding out. Go Philippa! The Renaissance Nancy Drew!

Meanwhile and far away, Lymond. Oh, Lymond. For all the magnificence and splendor in which he sets himself up in Russia (with a lot of help from Guzel, former bosswoman of the Suleiman the Great's seraglio) and all the magnificent busy work he get up to trying to bring Russia kicking and screaming into at least the middle ages if not the Renaissance, Lymond is pretty much just sulking. He's got very good reason to sulk, to shut himself down, to withdraw -- the events at the close of Pawn in Frankincense would fell, emotionally, far greater heroes than he, if indeed there are any. But still, he's lost his sparkle, exercising in Russia a mere competence. Admittedly, his mere competence is still far more than most people could hope to strive for, but still. He needs a miracle. He needs Philippa.

But still. This is Lymond. So, even though he's down at the mouth and wounded and scarred and pissed off, he's still making things happen. Politics, social change, sex, action. Oh my goodness, action. Like a midnight hand-to-hand bout in an aviary-cum-orangerie at the top of Lymond's Kremlin palace. Like a moonlit, reindeer-powered sledge race above the Artic Circle brought to fast-paced ruin by the untimely release of Lymond's hunting eagle.* Which just happens to hunt deer.

You're not even coming close to imagining the brilliant chaos of that scene.

But Russia and all of it's crazed and gory glory is only part of the story, which is really and mostly about how Lymond almost gets sucked into the dynastic politics of, that's right, England. Ivan the Terrible decides to send him there to bully negotiate a shipment of weapons and men to teach Russia to make weapons. And Lymond is now the Tsar's man. So off he goes, to the England of Mary Tudor and her consort Phillip, poised to become Elizabethan England, maybe with the help of a little of that Lymond magic? Which no court in Europe can do without? Except of course, Lymond wants just to be left alone to be Lymond, divorce Phillipa (no!) and go back to Russia to play tinpot general and not be married to Guzel. Right?

Oh, things are never so simple where this guy is concerned. We know that, now, surely?

But we also know is that in Phillipa, Lymond has finally met his match.

*Yes, eagle. Lesser men train and hunt with falcons. Lymond has a golden eagle, eight-foot wingspan and all.

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