The quotation above is spoken (in this novel) by John Dee, but it could just as well stand as shorthand for the protagonist of The Ringed Castle, Francis Crawford of Lymond, an infuriating genius if ever there was one. 'Tis time to Wax most Lyrical, for here be the fifth instalment (of six) in Dorothy Dunnett's utterly peerless work of historical fiction, the Lymond Chronicles. After the previous volumes, which took us (and Lymond, brilliant but wayward younger son of a well-placed Scottish family) across mid-sixteenth-century Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor - from the Scottish highlands to the court of Suleyman the Magnificent, via Malta, France, and divers other regions - we turn now to Russia, and a heart of darkness.
I'm in something of a dilemma, this being the fifth in a series whose previous plot twists it would be sheerest cruelty to spoil (more particularly, to spoil for my fellow blogger Vicky, who is running three volumes behind me). Discussing the book in any detail would be fraught with difficulty - even to mention which characters feature (beyond the Man Himself, of course) in the tale might constitute the willful revealing of developments that ought to be kept secret. Can I say that Lymond xxxx to Russia, xxxx because he xxxx? That xxxx is in xxxx, trying to avoid xxxx while she seeks xxxx and a xxxx?
Clearly, this will not do!
I can at least say (since Vicky accidentally read it in the back-cover blurb - bad Penguin!) that the redoubtable Philippa Somerville once again features heavily. The Ringed Castle finds her back in England, at the court of Mary Tudor. Both court and queen are, naturally, masterfully drawn. Mary emerges as a layered and ultimately tragic figure, pulled in all sorts of contradictory directions by her deep religious conviction, painful memories of her mother's shaming over Anne Boleyn, and loyalty to her beloved, but indifferent and rather clumsy husband (the future Philip II). (Her exchange of letters with the Pope when Philip goes to war is heartbreaking). Her faction-ridden court, meanwhile, is a dangerous place to be; I don't believe I've ever seen a better portrait of the ruinous back-and-forth that went on over the religious settlement in the mid-sixteenth century (fiendishly nuanced and complicated, but clearly evoked). The courtiers' lives and careers are fragile, and only those prepared to fight the hardest can keep their positions.
"But Margaret Lennox is the Queen's cousin and what she threatens, she can carry out amply. [...] If Mr Crawford does not leave Russia now, he will never leave it. He will be dead before the ship sails, by her agency."
Philippa, now inextricably linked with Lymond and Scotland, must dodge the various machinations of the Lennoxes and the queen's sister Elizabeth (all the while trying to maintain the illusion that she is an innocent pawn), plus a cadre of hopeful suitors. She deals with it all with the usual aplomb and wry Somerville good humour - but a rash miscalculation may put more than herself in danger...
Lymond himself is in Russia, for various reasons, at the head of what remains of his mercenary band, St Mary's. He sells his military services to Ivan Vasilievich (aka Ivan IV, aka, yes, The Terrible - again, another brilliant, and disturbing, portrait), who desires an army to resist the Ottomans, fight the Tartars - but also, perhaps, to turn upon the Christian powers of the Baltic, and thence to threaten the realm of Emperor Charles (Philip's father). But it is a venture fraught with peril for many more reasons than the instabilities of Russia's neighbours. Lymond must subdue, train and hold the loyalty of a brutal, hitherto-unmanaged army, all the while subject to the whims of a capricious, murderous Tsar, his envious, scheming council, and a zealously-insular Church (one of Lymond's men soon finds himself up on heresy charges for giving lessons in Western-style artistic techniques to a small group of icon-painters). As always, Dunnett's tale wears its considerable learning lightly - landscape, architecture, tradition, material culture, royal display and orthodox church ritual are woven through both backdrop and foreground, shaping story and character and theme without ever being piled on for their own sake.
Lymond sees Russia as something of a blank slate, a land with great potential that he believes he can help it to realise. In partnership with Ivan, he dreams, always, of creating something bigger and more lasting than himself. But will the cost - withdrawing himself into a personal Russian winter - prove too much?
"Something comes out of every voyage," said Lymond sharply. "Out of every bloody fruitless endeavour. All the striving after the unknowable. The unattainable, the search for Athor, the creative force, rolled into a circle. You with your quest; I with my care-ridden Emperor; Sir Thomas, sitting before the fire, his bowels burning before him. We add something. If we didn't add something, there would be no object in it..."
The broader context to all this - and, certainly, ever-present at the back of Lymond's mind - is the Age of Discovery, as exploration and trading ventures go hand-in-hand with new avenues in empirical and theoretical ways of conceiving the world. Lymond is soon joined in Russia by the merchants and navigators of the English Muscovy Company; others make plans to go further east. The maps are still being drawn, and Dunnett invites us into the conceptual and literal worlds of those doing the drawing (including John Dee) - worlds filled with possibility, with so much to learn, in which great men may make their mark and leave as their legacy a lasting contribution to Knowledge, and the generations to come.
My time with The Ringed Castle proved to me once again what an utterly magnificent writer Dorothy Dunnett was. She reminds me of the reason I read fiction - of reading as a process of continuous discovery, when I as a reader grow with the experience, when the heart soars for the sheer joy of sharing this prose and the mind dances along the pathways of its oh-so-intricate plotting (and then gets tripped up and has to turn back ten pages to work out What On Earth Just Happened... ;-)).
Complaints? I have two, I think. The first arises from the necessary evil of the structure. Given the time period being covered during the Russian section of the novel (several years), there is obviously a need for overview and summary, but at times this grows frustrating - there is too much reported action and remembered dialogue, not enough here-and-now set-pieces (or even casual conversations). And, of course, no-one does set-pieces better than Dunnett; no-one elucidates the complexity of a moment with such economy, or ratchets up the tension quite so effortlessly. There are not so many of these this time out - and certainly nothing to match the climax of Pawn in Frankincense, during which I frequently had to pause, and look away from the book, just so I would remember to breathe. ;-) Still, standouts in this volume include a nighttime sledge race (with, of course, a deadly twist), and, back in London, an excursion to the Office of the Revels and Masques that turns into a piece of impromptu alliterative theatre - and then is transformed again into something else entirely.
My other quibble concerns Lymond. He continues to be his glittering self, of course: leader, soldier, intellectual, aesthete; endlessly curious, always learning, never lacking for an apt quotation (in about seven different languages) or a barbed comeback. There is no empty hyperbole to the responses he inspires from those around him (one of my favourites this time, upon a first encounter: From a disadvantage of four inches and a quantity of stupefaction, Diccon Chancellor bowed.) - he is truly a remarkable man, and all the more so for being an utterly convincing and human creation even as his mind always remains four steps ahead of everyone else's.
But - out of a mixture of arrogance and the hard lessons of past betrayals - he rarely trusts anyone enough to let them in on his plans, or to let them get close to him. Increasingly, he is pursuing his goals in self-enforced isolation - and, increasingly, he is treating those around him like pawns within his wider aims.
Philippa said, "And if that isn't being damned magisterial I don't know what is. It's my business because I love your family and you love your own stately, self-perpetuated miseries."
This does get wearing, for reader as well as supporting cast. Part-way through this novel I did find myself wondering: how many times do the likes of Margaret Erskine or Philippa have to tell Lymond to grow up and get some empathy before he drops his No-one-understands-me, I-must-bear-this-burden-alone schtick? Like any good brooding loner, he's self-obsessed and touch smug, half in love with his aloneness because it makes him cleverer than everyone else. It is little wonder that even those closest to him find him a trial to be around; this is put most succinctly and painfully, as ever, through the figure of his elder brother Richard, whom Philippa observes,
[...] running his home of Midculter, raising his children, sustaining, year after year, the blows which fell without warning, the traps which opened, the doors which shut in his face because of his brother Crawford of Lymond.
Of course, the situation is being shaded (a development set up in Queens' Play and seen to a greater degree in the fourth book, Pawn In Frankicense): Lymond is not merely misunderstood, or arrogant, but actively (perhaps helplessly) self-destructive. He is uncompromising and ruthless, undoubtedly - especially to those closest to him - but never more so than with himself. He damages himself in service of his convictions and ambitions, deliberately pushing aside anyone who might inspire softness in him. He genuinely believes - or tries so fervently to convince himself so, that he might as well believe it - that he will function better as the human being he wishes to be without such petty entanglements as friendship, empathy, and love. (Philippa, naturally, tells him off for this, too).
No man is an island, of course, and the cracks were beginning to show at the end of Pawn In Frankincense, although Lymond soon ruthlessly scoured away the evidence. He keeps up an even colder, more distant facade this time around - until it is compromised, again, by something utterly unexpected. Whether the legacy and lessons of The Ringed Castle shall prove any more enduring - and less damaging - remains to be seen.
Finally, I find myself curious what the title signifies, but I think I know. Whether or not it applies to any physical place in the book, I can't help but feel it to be figurative - for who or what is more comprehensively walled-off (and, for that matter, under siege) than Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny?