Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett- Book review

An epic finale to the epic Lymond Chronicles, I found Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett to be the perfect end to this historical series.

Genre: Historical fiction

Series The Lymond Chronicles ( series review here)

There may be spoilers for previous books in this review.

“The more modest your expectations, the less often you will court disappointment.”
― Dorothy Dunnett, Checkmate

Lymond is stuck in France and stuck in a marriage he is desperate to escape, so he agrees to France’s terms to ensure his divorce from Phillipa is granted. He is promptly embroiled in politics, intrigue and actual war but that is easier to manage than then an increasingly complicated relationship between him and Phillipa. Will Lymond ever find out the truth about his parentage? Will he find happiness with the woman he loves? Will he ever be free from Margaret Lennox?

So this is the final book in the Lymond story and I have to say it is the perfect finale to possibly the best historical fiction ever written. The covers for the Lymond books on my Kindle are abstract and boring but some of the older editions have a more romantic theme which always seemed to be a little misplaced. But there is a strong undercurrent of romance and angst throughout Checkmate that would explain why I have sometimes seen these books referred to as historical romance.

Lymond loves Phillipa and Phillipa loves Lymond and they are legally married. But Lymond, supported by almost everyone in his world with one exception, is determined that Phillipa will marry someone more suitable like Austin Grey. Poor Phillipa, even when she realises Lymond loves her too, she still cannot have her man, because he will not stay married to her. This has to be the most original barrier to true love in a book.

But Lymond’s angst doesn’t stop him from influencing French politics, Scottish politics and fighting wars. The book has more from his point of view and I found it fascinating to read that despite all his cleverness and talent he has the same worries and insecurities that all people have. Some of his past actions come back to haunt particularly his time in Queen’s play. Did Lymond actually sleep with an entire family ( father, mother and daughter)?

Checkmate sees the return of many old characters. Marthe and Jerott become entangled in Lymond’s complicated life again and they are now unhappily married. Old faithful Abernathy remains protective of Lymond’s wellbeing despite his attempts at self-sabotage. Richard and Sybilla also return to play a major part in Lymond’s life. Over the last two books, Lymond’s actions towards his family appeared devoid of any affection or love and at times were truly despicable but his actions at the end of the book prove that he is loyal to Sybilla and Richard in his own way.

Women in Lymond

“My son took many years to learn the simple truth. You cannot love any one person adequately until you have made friends with the rest of the human race also. Adult love demands qualities which cannot be learned living in a vacuum of resentment.”
― Dorothy Dunnett, Checkmate

Phillipa, of course, takes more than centre stage and in most of the book proves an equal to Lymond( her discussion with Austin’s uncle is the perfect example). Unfortunately, her overriding desire to help Lymond leads to tragedy but even though it does appear she has dealt with things after the fact before Lymond rides to the rescue.

Sybilla plays an important role in this book and shows her unique and frankly scary style of questioning or helping Lymond. But what is clear is that she has always cared for both her sons and any decision she made would have harmed one of them, no matter what path she took.

People obsessed with Lymond

Margaret Lennox is back and is just as obsessed with destroying Lymond as always. I haven’t been able to figure out why she hates Lymond so much especially as she was the much older woman who seduced a vulnerable sixteen-year-old in her care. But for the first time, Lymond acknowledges the damage this has caused on his life and possibly subsequent relationships.

Should I add Philippa to this list?

Overriding story arc

“It was of no importance. Birth did not matter; heredity was merely a hurdle; one was what one made of oneself; that and no other.”
― Dorothy Dunnett, Checkmate

We finally find out the truth about Lymond’s parentage (and it’s a corker of a story) and I love how Dunnett keeps this from us till the very last pages. This is the first time I have reread Checkmate after finishing the House of Niccolo books adding an addition layer of understanding especially with Sybilla’s actions.

Lymond body health ( how is he still standing?)

Lymond still has his crippling headaches with blindness, survives a number of intense battles including almost being blown up, and other incidents I won’t mention as I don’t want to accidentally reveal any spoilers.

Content warning

Description of self-harm/attempted suicide, sexual assault ( off-page)


A fitting finale to an epic story. I wasn’t planning on doing a reread of the House of Niccolo but I think I am going to have to. now.

Checkmate isn’t a book to start the Lymond Chronicles and would recommend the Queen’s play, Game of Kings or the more conventional The Disorderly Knights.

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