News about the upcoming TV series based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series inspired some thought about potentially filming a series based on Dorothy Dunnett’s six-book Lymond Chronicles. Dunnett’s series is also set in Scotland, though it takes place a couple of hundred years before Gabaldon’s series. If I had all the money in the world, I'd hire Tom Stoppard to adapt these novels and Tom Hiddleston in his Prince Hal mode—smug, arrogant, conflicted and charismatic—to play Lymond, but alas, I haven't the cash, so the best I can do is get other people to read this incredible series.
What are the Lymond Chronicles? Think of them as the Scottish love-child of Alexandre Dumas and Dorothy L. Sayers, with an added layer of psychological complexity and political maneuvering that is reminiscent of Game of Thrones. Most of all, this compelling historical romance (in which no one, thankfully, has historically accurate pox scars and missing teeth) is the story of Francis Crawford of Lymond, and his long journey to find love, save his country, and live up to his great potential.
Lymond is a heady cocktail of physical beauty, impossible cleverness, tortured nobility, vicious sarcasm, book smartness, emotional imbecility (at least when it comes to himself, though he is very perceptive about others), idealism, cynicism, and smugness, who uses badinage and brilliance as a protective shell for the broken man underneath. He is attractive to men and women, a man-whore who uses sex to get information, to protect others and to hide from himself, convinced that he’s a “hunchback in the gutter” who does not deserve the love he so desperately wants, and convinced that whatever he loves, he destroys. (He has a bad track record with that, so that's understandable!) But when he loves you, he's all in; he'll do anything for you, including giving himself up to certain death. Lymond is infuriating and lovable in equal measure, and neither readers nor the other characters know whether they want to slap him or kiss him or both. While there are a lot of fictional homages to Lymond out there (I would include some of Guy Gavriel Kay’s heroes, Eugenides from Megan Whalen Turners fantastic YA Queen’s Thief series and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series in this lineage), the original Lymond is still the best.
Although the series is always front and center about Lymond, and there’s a lot of bromance (including Lymond’s troubled relationship with his actual brother, Richard, and his relationships with the various soldiers who follow him and idealize him), one of the reasons I keep coming back to these books is because all the female characters in the series are so memorable and differentiated; I'll just mention one example, Lymond's mother Sibylla, who is as formidably intelligent as Lymond himself, and whose relationship with Lymond is what makes him who he is when the series opens.
And then there is the love interest, whose name I will not reveal because of giant spoilers: I love her almost as much as I love Lymond himself. Over the course of the six books, she and he grow together, and she is his equal in every way (except possibly swordfighting): intelligent, loving, brave, open-hearted and adventurous. They connect because of their shared wit, their love of music and poetry, and an idealism that Lymond tries hard to pretend that he’s lost. In fact, she’s, exactly what Lymond needs, only it takes him excruciating ages to figure this out. (In his defense, he’s busy with geopolitics and personal tragedy for a while.)
The moment he realizes that he’s in love with her, and that she is “all that he was not” is one of my favorites in the entire series:
He looked at her. The long, brown hair; the pure skin of youth; the closed brown eyes, their lashes artfully stained; the obstinate chin; the definite nose, its nostrils curled. The lips, lightly tinted, and the corners deepened, even sleeping, with the remembrance of sardonic joy… The soft, severe lips.
And deep within him, missing its accustomed tread, his heart paused, and gave one single stroke, as if on an anvil.
In addition to the incredible romance, the series is highly political (and the chess metaphors turn into actual chess games with live humans at one point.) The first book of the series, A Game of Kings, is set in 1547, during what's known as the “Rough Wooing” when the English, under Lord Protector Somerset, have invaded Scotland to get their hands on four-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, so they can marry her to England's King Edward VI, and thus annex Scotland to England. The Scots are definitely not down with this plan! Enter Lymond, who, along with half the Scottish nobility, was captured at the disastrous battle of Solway Moss five years earlier, and who is believed to have turned his coat and betrayed Scotland (and his own family). He's persona SO non grata with both the Scots and the English; everyone but his mother wants him dead, and we can't figure out why he's come back to Scotland now, and whether he'll accomplish his goal before someone inevitably kills him. (During the course of the first thirty pages, he gets a pig and half of Edinburgh drunk on Bordeaux wine and burns down his brother's castle, so his motives are somewhat opaque.)
A Game of Kings is more or less a standalone, and it was also Dunnett’s first novel, so I’ve always found it a little hard to get into though it picks up steam at about page 150 or so and goes on to an incredible ending that makes the slightly random events at the beginning make perfect sense, just as the seemingly random moves of a chess Grand Master at the opening of a game make sense once you see the entire game.
Later novels move to the court of Henry II and Catherine de Medici in France; still later Lymond travels to Malta, to the court of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in Istanbul, to Moscow under Ivan the Terrible, and even to England, where the young Elizabeth Tudor is about to take the throne, but the heart of Lymond the character and Lymond the series, is Scotland and much of what Lymond does and endures is based on his need to save his country from turmoil. (And speaking of “endures”, there’s enough hurt/comfort in this series to fullfill all your hurt/comfort needs for a decade!)
Be sure to have a box of tissues next to you if you read this series, because there is at least one moment per book that makes me bawl every time I read it, and that makes me wonder why I'm torturing myself with these novels. But then I remind myself that there is a happy ending—“we have reached the open sea, with some charts; and the firmament”—and it is well worth all the agonies we go through to get there.
The six novels in the series are: A Game of Kings, Queen’s Play, The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle, and Checkmate.
Regina Thorne is an avid reader of just about everything, an aspiring writer, a lover of old movies and current tv shows, and a hopeless romantic.