I mentioned in my previous post that there’s a moment in the Lymond books when you find out what’s actually been going on the whole time, and it retrospectively changes the narrative.
The wonderful thing about this moment is that whilst it’s unexpected, once the revolution of thought happens, it makes sense. Dunnett plants the “real” series of events in the narrative so that as a reader you pick up on the markers subconsciously and all the dots join, backwards, once you have the key pieces of information.
The way she does this in The Disorderly Knights (book 3) is absolutely brilliant, and a great lesson in writing.
Unfortunately, I can’t really go into this point in depth without some spoilers, so if you haven’t read it yet and think you might, don’t read on!
The Turkish corsair Dragut tells Lymond a cautionary anecdote. I don’t have the book with me and can’t quote it in full, but the message is this: If you want to know the truth of someone’s intentions, don’t listen to them – watch their hands!
This is the key to how Lymond discovers Gabriel’s true, evil intent, and also the key to how Dunnett both fools and informs the reader at the same time.
We are constantly told how magnetic Gabriel is – how he draws men to him, how glorious and humble and worthy he is. We see other men affected by him; we see them listen to and respect him.
But I suspect that, like myself, most readers are left with an odd feeling that something’s not quite right – he just doesn’t seem all that amazing.
Lymond sees his true nature where no one else does, by looking at his hands, not listening to his words. If he were truly everything he is supposed to be, says Lymond, then why isn’t he the Grand Master of the Order of St John? Why hasn’t he achieved greatness?
I think this is what confounds the reader as well, but in a subconscious way before we are shown the true nature of Gabriel. And the way Dunnett does it is by using the sacred Show Don’t Tell rule against us.
She tells us that Gabriel is glorious and she shows us that he’s not. We believe what we are told, but our senses and logic are being shown something else. There is a hollowness to just being told something, which is why writers are warned against it in the first place.
There’s a lesson in here for all writers, I think – that you can flout rules bravely and with intent, and create a series of expectations in a reader of which they aren’t even aware, until you give them the key to what they already, somewhere, know.