Friday, November 22, 2013

Dorothy Dunnett's CHECKMATE

There was a big part of me that did not ever, ever want to read Checkmate, because that would mean coming to the end of the Lymond Chronicles, and you only get one first read through of things and I didn't want my first read of these books to end, ever.

But... Since about halfway through the third or fourth book I knew I wanted to start the series over again because I obviously had missed some things, or missed the importance of some things, or misinterpreted some things and... look, I can see why some people call Dorothy Dunnett the only author you'll ever need, because it's obvious that many a reader could be perfectly happy just reading these books over and over again over a lifetime. And I might do that, though there's still the House of Niccolo series of which to partake, yet, too.*

In order to engage in either of those reading projects, though, I had to rip off the band-aid and let the Lymond Chronicles end for me.

And I gotta tell you, guys, I kind of wish I hadn't. But not for the reasons one might expect.

I'm not going to say that Checkmate is awful; it's still Dorothy Dunnett, still a Lymond novel, which means it's way, way better than 99.999999% of the books that have yet been, or ever will be written, but...

Gosh, I wasn't ready for this grand and elegant tale to descend into melodrama. And not just melodrama but the kind of melodrama in which the reader fantasizes about slapping the hero (as the hero's amazing mother, Sybilla Crawford, gets to do -- has to do -- at one point late in the novel) and heroine silly. Because both hero and heroine -- but especially the hero -- are being whiny little emo bitches.

Married to the awesome Philippa Somerville, who has been taking no crap from him for five novels now, since the end of the fourth novel (Pawn in Frankincense), Lymond has been sort of half-assedly trying to wiggle his way out of his marriage, assuming, for the most part rightly, that Philippa, who started out the Chronicles hating his guts, would probably rather be married to somebody else; they only tied the knot to preserve her reputation after she spent some considerable time as a (still undeflowered) part of the Ottoman Emperor's harem and had to travel some considerable distance with a lot of men who weren't related to her, but without a suitable female chaperon (unless you count the mysterious Crawford by-blow, Marthe, but you really shouldn't. Ever). As Checkmate opens, he is given an offer he can't refuse by the King of France, who dangles a divorce before Lymond's jaded eyes as an inducement to stick around and put his and his company's martial talents in the service of France against Bloody Mary's dear husband Philip of Spain. So of course he accepts.

But then...

But then circumstances first lead Philippa to realize she's had the hots for him all along, and then lead Lymond to reveal that he has also, at some point, realized that they're perfect for each other, which should be great but isn't because Emo Lymond has decided that passionate love is the worst possible basis for a marriage and is actually the worst and most destructive thing that can happen to two people (which, he has a point there, IMHO) and so he still insists on the divorce. He's got his next bride -- a high-ranking French heiress -- all lined up, and Philippa, in true Ugly-Duckling-to-Swan-by-way-of-Seraglio fashion has more suitors than can fit comfortably into a massive royal audience chamber, so really, they'll both be fine.

Except, of course, they're not fine, because they're in LURVE. And also because there is still all the untidy mess of Lymond's lineage and parentage and all of the enemies he's made around the world that are still alive and people who still insist on willfully misunderstanding him and his motives and gossiping about him and plotting to kill him (and his wife, too -- their escape from a whole passel of murderers early in the novel is one of the best scenes in all of these chronicles, exciting and ridiculous and hilarious and perfect in every way until Pip has to spoil it all by saying something stupid like "Francis, you fool. This is what you should be." Which, durr, but anyway.

But amid all that I'm complaining of, there are still some marvelous bits, like the aforementioned chase, and the reunion with Lymond and his readers of so many of his former sidekicks and helpers and partners in not-quite-crime. Archie Abernathy above all, but also Jerrot Blythe and Adam Blacklock and Alec Guthrie and... the list goes on. We even get to see Lymond's older brother and learn a thing or two about him we weren't expecting. I would not have been surprised at all to finally get another appearance of the entertaining and annoying Lady Agnes from The Game of Kings. Which is to say that narratively and in terms of character arcs, the loose ends mostly get tied up very well.

And there are seriously WTS moments like a visit to a possibly haunted house where the mysterious Dame de Doubtance once lived and told fortunes and collected alchemical and other junk. And so on.

But mostly what there is, is being annoyed at Lymond and Philippa, suddenly acting like teenagers continually inventing new excuses for being unhappy. And let me just say that these are two people who are very, very good at everything they do, so the excuses they generate for their continued misery are staggering, and more than a little icky.

So, like so many readers before me, I have terribly mixed feelings about this last volume of the Lymond Chronicles. Yes, it gives everything a proper and mostly happy ending, but if you're not a reader who gets off on "will they or won't they" "hurry up and make out already" drama, the path to that ending is a bit like, well, like this:

But yes, I still want to go back and re-read these books right from the beginning. Perhaps even more so than before I hit Checkmate, because I am longing quite passionately to hang out with Lymond while he was still awesome and enigmatic. Sigh.

*I actually started the first book of that series as a teenager, but got bored about 20% into it. I might again, but I'm far from being a teenager now; my tastes have changed, my attention span has grown, my knowledge of the period and appreciation of the mercantile/economic side of life have deepened, so I'm thinking maybe I'll actually enjoy it this time. We'll see.


  1. Way, way better than 99.999999% of the books that have yet been, or ever will be written, but only 3 stars out of 5 in your review? What does it take to get 4 or 5?!

  2. It's partially your fault that I'm halfway through re-re-re-re-(??)-reading PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE, and finding new depths and rediscovering Phillippa. Who learns to wriggle up from the foot of the bed. It's amazing to me tha the geomalers were a real thing.

    Just so you know, both CHECKMATE and GEMINI are among the weakest in the series (which is still 99.99999% better than most). So much expectation and weight on those final books, they can't possibly satisfy. (I've been reading reviews of Stephen Donaldson's THE LAST DARK and they've also been along the lines of "overwritten, bloated, too long, but I would rather have my nails pulled out with pliers than be denied the chance to read it").

    Lymond is fun to hang out with, even when he's being emo. But all the lineage subplot is a drag both in Lymond and in Niccolo. Truthfully the journey is all.

    You can reread these books right now and you will find many things you missed, but I can assure you that you will reread them many times in the coming years.

    (the only book I have not reread is KING HEREAFTER. I keep telling myself that one day I will rent a cottage on the Orkney Islands and reread it there)

  3. 1. I loathe "star" ratings but when I'm forced to employ them, and I'm dealing with a series, I rate books in a series against each other. All the Lymond Books are 5 stars except for Checkmate because it's so much weaker than its fellows. SO MUCH WEAKER.

    2. I've decided to read Niccolo first, then and only then allow myself the luxury of re-reading Lymond.

  4. I'm with you 100% on this. I was so looking forward to Checkmate, which seems to be everyone's favorite, but the ANGST was too much for me. And it made it worst that I had trouble believing in the reasons behind that angst (both for Lymod and Philippa). I'd choose Pawn or Disorderly over Checkmate any day but as you also said, even a not-so-perfect Dunnett is still a great Dunnett!

  5. Really, really, really - you need to have mega spoiler alerts in this review! Thirty years ago I may have felt the way you do (it's hard for me to remember) but having re-read Checkmate every year since then I understand so much more than I did on my first reading. But even on first reading it's obvious that Lymond understood Nostradamus' words (paraphrasing) "there are two things you desire - one you shall have, the other you shall never have nor would it be right that you should ..." to mean Philippa was not for him. He also doubted the staying power of love, given the mess Sybilla had seemingly made of the family, and given that while he knew who his father was, he didn't know the full and real account until the final pages. He has to be given credit for trying to spare Philippa the net; and Philippa - who knew only too well how highly-strung her spouse was - was motivated by a 'whatever it takes to stop him taking his life' mission. Checkmate is my favourite. However, the ending did feel a bit rushed, especially given our beloved DD's penchant for over-writing.

  6. But rereading CHECKMATE means I'd have to sit through pages of Austin Grey again. And by CHECKMATE, Jerrott is tiresome with or without Marthe. I enjoy Lymond when he's handling situations, meetings, people; and have less patience for the prophesies, lineage questions, mystical experiences and love songs of J. Alfred Blyth. There is, of course, much to love in CHECKMATE (thank goodness for the Strozzi clan), but it's my least reread book.

    I am currently rereading KNIGHTS and PAWN and I'm struck at how few "real" characters there are in these books. I've been over with Niccolo for a while and DD puts a staggering number of fully-realized historical personages, great and small, into the pages. I didn't notice how cautious she was about the "real people" characters in Lymond.

    And the historical set pieces in Niccolo are truly awesome; all the more because I was not aware of their significance prior to reading the books, and so I just experienced them from within, without hindsight. I had no idea what was significant about Trebizond, had never heard of the siege of Famagusta, and was ill-read about the Duchy of Burgundy. Got a serious education reading those books...

    I am looking forward to re-experiencing my first Niccolo read by peeking in on this blog.

  7. Hee. I started Niccolo Rising last night 8)

    1. Three men in a tub. Who clearly need a good astrologer.

  8. This book is so incredibly romantic and heart-breaking. It is such an incredible conclusion to the series, which really should be read all six in a row because each one builds on the last in such an intricate and also organic way. When I read these books, I feel like I am living and breathing them.

  9. I'm kinda with you on this. Things really get ridiculous. Marthe as DD stands out (hello? The most intelligent man in the universe doesn't recognise Marthe in a wig?) , as does "blinding headaches cured by a knock on the head". Angst, of course, is the currency of romance. In this, I feel, is the ultimate challenge of the author. Dunnett has held up to us the mirror of our own foolishness in believing romantic fiction. She has tested our credulity - Lymond, after all, is a fictional character that we crave with the same strength that his fictional followers crave. And yet the question remains: does this question our strength in the belief of love?


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