Well, actually it’s rereading. With my proclivity for reading long novels, I have started rereading Dorothy Dunnett’s “House of Niccolo” series. There are eight books in this series and I am presently on book two “The Spring of the Ram” wherein the hero, Nicholas Van der Poele, has embarked on a journey to Trebizond to further his fortunes in the merchant world of Renaissance Europe.
Dorothy Dunnett is famous for the Lymond series of novels, a fantastic historical adventure story comprising six books, which feature the fascinating hero Francis Crawford, soldier adventurer extraordinaire. She died in 2001 and was herself a person of many parts. As well as being a prolific writer she also had a career as a portrait painter.
The “Niccolo” series is a prequel to the Lymond saga and like the latter series the action ranges across a large geographical area. It begins in Bruges where Nicholas is introduced, first appearing as an apparently simple dyer’s apprentice, an illegitimate child fostered by Marion Charetty, the distant relation who owns the dyeing business. As is typical of Dunnett’s style of hero, Nicholas is not what he initially seems, but is gradually revealed to be a genius with figures and codes and wise beyond his years.
I first read Dorothy Dunnett back in the late 1980s, when my supervisor at work recommended the Lymond series to me. I must admit, I had heard of Dorothy Dunnett before then, but had dismissed her books in my mind as being merely insipid historical romances.
How wrong I was!
Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels are highly individual, meticulously researched, intricately plotted page-turners of remarkable quality. They are beautifully written, the writing being vividly pictorial, colourful and dryly humorous, not to mention full of drama. The historical period – 15th and 16th Century - comes to life under Dunnett’s skilled penmanship. Her cast of characters is enormous and include actual historical personages participating in the action. Her leading characters are psychologically complex human beings. Her heroes, Francis Crawford in the Lymond series and Nicholas, are enigmatic, intelligent and multi-skilled. Her heroines are brainy, strong, brave and independent. Subtle, extraordinarily evil villains engage in dangerous competition with the main characters and are also initially not what they appear to be. The complexity of characters lends an intensity and drama to the ongoing narrative. The plot twists and turns, resulting in surprising reversals and revelations, and Dunnett keeps the reader on tenterhooks to the last page of the last book in the series. It is masterfully done.
Dorothy Dunnett works on a huge canvas. As previously mentioned, the geographical stretch of the novels’ action covers the known world of the time - the Ottoman Empire, Czarist Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the Holy Land under Marmalukes, England under Henry XIII, the Florence of Cosimo Medici etc. etc. All these places are described in technicolour - the brilliant fashions and jewels, the picturesque cities and ceremonies are all rendered in sparkling detail.
By no means an easy read, Dorothy Dunnett’s 14-book epic is well worth the time and effort expended and totally engrossing when you get into the story. It is said about John Crowley’s novel, “Little, Big”, that the further you go in the bigger it gets. This is also true for the Niccolo/Lymond chronicles.