A dangerous game of cat and mouse
Title: Pawn in Frankincense
Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Originally published: 1969
Edition reviewed: 2017
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK
Genre: Historical fiction
Setting: The Mediterranean (multiple countries) 1552
Difficulty: Difficult Pages: 532
Series: Yes. This is the fourth book in the series The Lymond Chronicles; it is a continuation of the plot from book 3 and it is advisable to read all three books before this one!
Always spoiler free. HOWEVER, this is the fourth book in a very complex series, so you may prefer not to read this review if you currently working your way through the series.
I adore this book, primarily because I started reading the series as a teen and very much fell in love with the very practical character, Phillippa! This book is the continuation of book three, where we left Lymond making an important oath at an altar in St Giles.
This book could be coined as Lymond’s revenge. The plot of this book is ‘constrained’ to Lymond chasing something(s) through the Mediterranean. In that respect it’s one of the simpler concepts of the series in that as a reader you know Lymond’s aim from the beginning. Don’t be fooled in thinking that this book is simple or boring however! As always intrigue plays a massive part and the delicate game of cat and mouse adds a new dimension to the series as Lymond is faced with an adversary who is just as cunning as he is, if not more so.
Where Dunnett shines in this book is again through her descriptions of the settings. She takes you on a whistle stop tour through a Mediterranean split between the Holy Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire, sumptuously detailing the countries and cultures along the way. Tread carefully, this is orientalism (we visit a seraglio, for example), although somewhat of a saving grace for the reader is the knowledge that Dunnett is meticulously historically accurate and describes all her settings (from Scotland to Constantinople) with the same level of detail and love. Also, a warning, the language is ‘historically accurate’ so included are derogatory language and prejudices applied to certain groups of people.
For the first time in the series the plot also diverges from Lymond. Previously we’ve seen action happen without Lymond present, but these have always had a direct impact on Lymond (or his plans). In this book we end up following several different characters as they journey through the Mediterranean chasing the same thing. This could technically have been reduced to a series of short explanations if Dunnett really wanted the focus to remain solely on Lymond. Of course, most of the events in some way impact Lymond anyway, if only because he sees himself responsible for the other characters.
One of the characters followed is Philippa and, as intelligent as she may be, her viewpoint is presented as the naïve and precocious child especially against the foil of Marthe (or is Marthe Lymond’s foil?). This means when following her journey you get a completely different viewpoint then has previously been explored by Dunnett - teenage me loved this FYI. Philippa’s plot line leads to her maturity as a character and being able to follow it allows the reader a greater understanding of Philippa (as opposed to Lymond). Dunnett has always had well developed female characters in the series, but it’s nice to have more than one become a central character throughout the duration of the book (instead of dropping in and out, like Guzel). That said I never warmed to Marthe, Gaultier and Gilles’ plot line.
The splitting of action means that occasionally the plot skips time and events. Sometimes I found it hard to work out how much time had passed due to this (are the events occurring simultaneously or is one character ahead or behind the other?) but it’s a small bugbear. It’s possibly also the first instance where you follow Lymond explicitly, not always viewing his character through another’s eyes. In a long-awaited discovery, you find out Lymond’s true age as well.
In a call back to the second book, Lymond is single minded in his course of action. He starts more tempered but becomes ever increasingly desperate as the book progresses – to the detriment of all, especially himself. Dunnett again stretches him as a character, forcing him to make some of the most devastating decisions in the series yet (‘who lives, who dies, who tells your story’). If you thought the conclusion of book three was tough…you’ve not seen anything yet!
Well Red Reviews
Would I recommend this book? Always
“He said, ‘What I have done?’ And as, confused and distressed, she did not at once speak, he said wearily, ‘Oh, my God’; and leaving the bed, crossed the carpet to the furthest corner of the room, and, dropping by the stool there, covered his blind face with his hands.”
“When they turned her over, and someone said something, and there was a general laugh. Philippa said forbiddingly, in Greek, ‘In case you haven’t noticed, you are now viewing the side which bites. You may, if you wish, paint a cross on it.’”
“‘The coast's a jungle of Moors, Turks, Jews, renegades from all over Europe, sitting in palaces built from the sale of Christian slaves. There are twenty thousand men, women and children in the bagnios of Algiers alone. I am not going to make it twenty thousand and one because your mother didn't allow you to keep rabbits, or whatever is at the root of your unshakable fixation.’
‘I had weasels instead,’ said Philippa shortly.
‘Good God,’ said Lymond, looking at her. ‘That explains a lot.’”
‘Which had, Kate considered as she scrubbed off her tears, a ring of unlikely confidence about it, as well as rather a shaky understanding of the diet of one-year-old babies.’
“‘To pass over grief, they say, the Italian sleeps; the Frenchman sings; the German drinks; the Spaniard laments, and the Englishman goes to plays. What then does the Scot?’ To Jerott’s mind sprang, unbidden, a picture of the sword Archie Abernethy was trying to clean at this moment below.
‘This one,’ he said, ‘kills.’”