Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, takes our hero Francis Crawford of Lymond on a journey through North Africa, Greece and Turkey to the court of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say anything about the plot of this novel as I expect most people reading this review will have either already read this book, in which case you won’t need a summary, or if you’re new to the series you’ll need to start with The Game of Kings and presumably won’t want to read too much about this fourth instalment. All I will say is that this book features some of the most heartbreaking moments in the series so far.

I had been looking forward to reading Pawn in Frankincense as the general opinion seems to be that it’s one of the best in the series, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think The Disorderly Knights is still my favourite, but I loved this one too. Like the previous three books it was exciting, emotional and almost impossible to put down. I thought the second half of the book in particular was stunning and the last few chapters were so powerful I’m sure I’ll never forget them; the chess game in the seraglio was one of the most tense, nerve-wracking scenes I can ever remember reading. If you’ve read the book I won’t need to explain why, and if you haven’t then I won’t go into any more detail as I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. I defy anybody to read it without crying or at least being close to tears!

I missed some of the characters from the previous books who didn’t appear in this one, though I do love Archie Abernethy and by the end of the story I loved Philippa too – I hadn’t liked her before but she really came into her own in this book. I also enjoyed learning about the Ottoman Empire, a world I had previously known very little about – I was maybe slightly overwhelmed by all the detailed descriptions at times but they certainly brought each location to life for me. Due to the nature of the story, with Lymond and his companions sailing through the Mediterranean to Constantinople (Istanbul), we are given vivid descriptions of all the places they visit on the way: Algiers, Djerba, Zakynthos, Thessalonika and others, none of which are places that I’ve read much about before.

I’ve started reading The Ringed Castle now and I’m already feeling sad that after I’ve finished it there’ll only be one more book left!

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28 thoughts on “Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Jo says:

    I can tell you are really enjoying these novels. They are not books I would have picked up, but may well consider them in the future.

  2. FleurFisher says:

    Your enthusiasm for this series is making me wish I had more time and concentration. When life has calmed down I will definitely be picking up my copies.

    • Helen says:

      I would love to see your thoughts on them, but yes, the time has to be right. They do require a lot of concentration but I think they’re definitely worth the effort.

  3. Lisa says:

    A Dunnett group will be touring Constantinople later this year, and oh how i wish I could go. There is nothing quite like the first time through the Chronicles – and I am enjoying looking over your shoulder as you read 🙂 But I’ve found that they are even richer on re-reading – and somehow just as suspenseful, even when I know what happens. And of course there are the other series as well.

    • Helen says:

      I love re-reading my favourite books (though I seem to have been doing that less often since I started book blogging) and I agree that they can be just as exciting and suspenseful no matter how many times you read them. I’m already looking forward to re-reading this series, though I do want to read the Niccolo books too.

  4. Teresa says:

    I think this might be my favorite from the series, almost entirely because of that chess game, although I also have a soft spot for The Disorderly Knights. I’ve been thinking for a while of rereading them, since I’ve only read them once, and it was at a quick clip because I was so addicted.

    • Helen says:

      I liked The Disorderly Knights slightly more than this one, but really I don’t think there’s much to choose between any of the books in the series. I’ve loved them all.

    • aartichapati says:

      I was thinking the same, too, Teresa! My pace was SUPER quick last time, too, and now I have the companions so hopefully would understand more of the context. But, I admit, I’m not sure that I’m ready to read all Lymond’s poetry again…

      I can’t wait for you to get through Ringed Castle, Helen, and that Anvil Moment! Squee 🙂

      • Helen says:

        I still haven’t finished The Ringed Castle but I’m into the final third now (just after the return to Scotland) so hopefully will reach the anvil moment soon!

        • caroline mcilwaine says:

          We miss too much when we speed read (but that is the only way for most of us the first time around – the story is so compelling and the need to know all the asnwers is such a driving force.)
          (And the ache for please, please some happinees for Francis!) I’ve been re-reading the series for 25
          years (joyfully obsessed) but only recently worked out the puzzling Venceslas-tryst scene in the Ringed Castle. I mean, i know what it led to, but was not sure

          • caroline mcilwaine says:

            *was not sure* of the links and Lymond’s thought processes and the mention of Robin Stewart threw me. Did the “not loving” Robin Sterwart mean he did love Venceslas? of course it didn’t mean that. At first I thought he was simply reminded of what he was missing, having chosen to be celibate at this time. It is much a deeper moment than that; and in some ways sad. I still discover small things across the books that i had not seen or realised before.

  5. Sheila Browning says:

    I have been reading, rereading and re-re-reading these since they were first published. If I were on Desert Island Discs they would be my choice. Wonder if they’re on Kindle yet . . .

    • Helen says:

      Yes, they are available for the Kindle (at least in the UK) – I had considered buying the Kindle versions as they were cheaper than the paperbacks, but didn’t in the end.

  6. caroline mcilwaine says:

    The chess game is heartbreaking. The book is amazing. The series is incomparable. I never tire of re-reading them. Wait for Checkmate. DD is a genius.

    • Helen says:

      I’m almost halfway through The Ringed Castle now so will be reading Checkmate soon – I’m looking forward to it but dreading reaching the end of the series too!

    • Amanda Lowes says:

      I absolutely agree! I have never read anything I have enjoyed more. I want everyone I know and care about to read them too. Re-reading them this year ( The Ringed castle is where I’m up to at the moment ) has been my refuge in a very difficult year where I have lost my father. I don’t think anything else would have helped.

      • Helen says:

        Thanks for commenting, Amanda. I’m so sorry to hear about your difficult year but glad that reading Dunnett has given you some comfort. Enjoy the rest of your re-read. 🙂

  7. Anonymous says:

    Yep, I’m a re-reader too. At least once every two years or so since the late 1970’s when I discovered them.

  8. Alex says:

    I’m with you: TDK is also still my favorite, although this one comes close.

    Have you ever visited Istanbul? The first time I was there I hadn’t read the series, but then I went back, just to see it with different eyes – it was an enhanced experience. It’s probably my favorite city in the world (apart from my own dear Lisbon).

  9. buriedinprint says:

    It’s such a bizarre feeling, that sense of wanting to bolt to the end of a series to see “what happens” combined with the sense of dread that, then, there will be nothing left to do but re-read.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s weird…I can’t decide whether to read faster so that I can get to the end or slower to make the final two books last as long as possible!

  10. Michele says:

    Philippa is one of my favorite characters in literature. I never disliked her, but I find that my admiration of her grows with each reread.
    I just finished a Lymond reread and am now immersed in King Hereafter. I don’t think I’ll ever stop retreading these books.

    • Helen says:

      Since my first read more than two years ago, I have read the Lymond books again, but so far have only read the House of Niccolo and King Hereafter once each. I did appreciate Philippa much more the second time around!

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