Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett – Book review

Dorothy Dunnett knew how to keep her readers on edge. That chess game still gives me me goosebumps despite having read Pawn in Frankincense before.

Series Lymond chronicles ( review here)

This review may reference details from the previous book.

This book follows on from the climax of The Disorderly Knights where Graham Mallett reveals that he has Lymond’s son by Oonagh stashed away in return for Graham’s ongoing survival. Lymond travels to the Ottoman empire to find his son while acting as a French ambassador but has numerous obstacles to face including a chess game that will not only seal his fate but also the people he cares about.


This is a hard book to feel ambivalent about. Now many how many times I read Pawn in Frankincense I still feel caught out by the sheer audacity of Dorothy’s writing. Lymond is caught out by the death of someone important to him, in the first quarter of the book, in a scene that still gives me nightmares.

I have seen the Lymond chronicles described as a medieval James Bond and in this book, I can see why. The action never stops from the pursuit at the start of the book to the fight against Graham in the Maltese sea to the chess game at the end. As always, Dunnett’s prose brings these scenes to life in a way very few authors can.

The story races along in the Ottoman empire filled with the dervish, mystic women, a tribe of young people preaching love, horse chases, harems, and of course chess. Despite the action, melodrama, tragedy  there is still an underlying sly humour.

And that chess game!

If you haven’t read Pawn in Frankincense be prepared for one of the most harrowing chess games ever written- Dunnett keeps piling on the tendsion move by move till the utterly devasting end.


“I have learned,’ said Lymond, ‘that kindness without love is no kindness.”

Lymond changes from a larger than life and flamboyant person to someone more introspective and vulnerable. He puts other’s safety and needs ahead as seen by his actions with the Aga in Dherba. This is the first book where Lymond has no contact with his family and to me the absence of Sybilla and Richard’s support is evident.

By the end of Pawn in Frankincense, Lymond is not the same person he was in The Game of Kings. Lymond is tired,defeated,vulnerable and needs help from the people around him to keep him standing.

People obsessed with Lymond

“Don’t you think they would all have been happier if Francis Crawford had never existed?”

As always, people make it their life’s purpose to influence and control Lymond. Graham continues to pull his strings from a distance. Graham continues to toy with Lymond in ever more sadistic ways and by the end of the book, Graham may have succeeded in breaking Lymond in a way no else could.

Dame de Doubtance, a woman first introduced in Queen’s play and seemed to know more than she should about Lymond plays an important part in sending Phillipa down a certain path. She makes several prophecies that do come to pass and what stake does she have in Francis’s life.

Women in Pawn and Frankincense

“I do admire efficiency,’ said Marthe. ‘But how tedious it can be in excess.”

Phillipa transforms from a gawky girl to a self-assured, cultured seventeen year who can handle herself in any situation.

Marthe, the almost female equivalent of Lymond in both her looks and manner, makes her appearance in this book and almost immediately seem to torment Lymond and poor Jerrot. Marthe is a woman ahead of her times and her potential is limited by the restrictions placed on women which could explain her cold personality.  

Kiaya de Khatun, the mistress of Drais Ragut and friend of Roxanna the Sultan’s wife is another intriguing strong woman who can be influential in a world where women are hidden away.

How is he still standing? ( the Lymond Body Health Count )

In this book he survives a near-drowning, wound to the shoulder, opium withdrawal and being beaten unconscious- a little less than previous books!

Ongoing Arc

We finally find out Lymond’s age and it comes as a shock as to how young he is. His age puts his behaviour in previous books into context but also the reason why he and his family were cagey about this being known. But it does make the attention he has received in the past few books including Graham’s (some with sexual undertones) a little more disturbing.

The mystery about Lymond’s parentage comes to the fore here with the introduction of the mysterious Marthe.

Content warning

Use of an outdated racist term, child abuse, descriptions of drug withdrawal, sexual coercion, references to suicide.


An emotionally draining read but in my opinion the best book in the series.

4 thoughts on “Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett – Book review

  1. This was my favourite of TLC as well. I feel like it’s the one in which the balance of history, plotting and character development is most effectively rendered. Unlike many Lymond devotees I actually rate Queens Play as one of the best. And I find Checkmate a slog. But I think we can all agree on Pawn!


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