In praise of Dorothy Dunnett

Dorothy Dunnett

I’d never heard of Dorothy Dunnett until one afternoon when I was in the library, seeking out my next stash of books.  Methodically going through the racks, I stumbled across The Spring of the Ram, the second book in her House of Niccolò series.  Although I don’t like reading series out of order, the first book was nowhere to be found in the library and there was a synopsis at the start of The Spring of the Ram.  I took it home and, very shortly, was absolutely hooked.

I’ve now bought the first four books in the series (there are eight altogether), of which I’ve read two and a half so far – I’m currently halfway through Race of Scorpions, the third book, which has prompted this post.  On a number of occasions I’ve enthused to my friends about the books, only to be met with rather blank reactions. People generally just haven’t heard of her.

On my relevantly brief acquaintance with her writing, I think Dorothy Dunnett is one of the most accomplished and engaging historical novelists I have ever come across.  It helps that these books are set in the historical period which most beguiles me.  Her Niccolò books take place in the mid-15th century, beginning in Bruges and then spreading outwards across the Renaissance world, wherever trade and adventure can take a man.  The second book was set in glittering Trebizond; the third is set predominantly in Cyprus.  I don’t want to look ahead to see where the other books are set, lest I somehow spoil the plot for myself.  I daren’t even read the back covers now, because the back of the fourth book contained a big spoiler which has now taken away some of the suspense in the third.

These are books which have to be savoured: Dunnett’s knowledge of the period is impeccable and every page is rich with detail – though never enough to make the plot heavy.  A series like this rests on the charm of the protagonist and there are few characters in fiction who’ve wormed their way into my heart as much as Nicholas has.  Starting out as a mischievous apprentice in a Bruges dyeworks, his good-natured and rather foolish exterior hides a brilliant mind that thrives on puzzles, figures, mechanics and patterns of all kinds – and the scene is set for a fantastic romp through Renaissance Europe.

Dunnett does a very good job of building up the relationship between Nicholas and the officers of his company, who find themselves swept along with him on his rise to power and influence.  And the best thing about this character-centred fiction is that, as the reader, you’re constantly being surprised by what Nicholas does.  He consistently manages to get into difficult situations, but the skein of connections and loyalties he’s carefully woven usually provides a way out – often an unexpected way, and often a way that makes you realise Nicholas has outwitted you again.

This might be rather premature, as I’m not even halfway through the series, but I wanted to spread the word.  Some of the books are out of print now in the UK, but all are available second-hand through Amazon.  If you like adventure, intrigue or Renaissance history, these will be for you.  If I were a commissioning producer for someone like HBO, and if money were no object, I’d be seriously tempted to turn this series into eight seasons of historical drama.  If done well, it would be absolutely dazzling.

Even better, once I’ve finished this series, I have her Lymond Chronicles to move onto.  She wrote that series before the Niccolò books, and it still seems to be better-known – apparently it follows the adventures of Nicholas’s descendants in Scotland in the 16th century.  Another feast of historical fiction awaits me, no doubt!

[Edited: I did of course finish the series; I also read the Lymond Chronicles and fell in love with it – and him – even more deeply than with the House of Niccolò. To read my reviews, see below. Simply click on the book cover to be taken to a larger image. There will be a link to the related review below the image (you may need to scroll down slightly)]





17 thoughts on “In praise of Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Kate Joekel says:

    So glad you are enjoying the 'Niccolo' series. No spoilers here, but just wait 'til you get to the Lymond series! It was by far my favorite. Niccolo was tough and brash and brilliant, Francis Crawford is elegant and ruthless and brilliant, well, maybe not so ruthless!

  2. Unknown says:

    I have read them…and read them again. I have read the whole series upwards of 8 times now for the earliest books and four time for the final book. They reward re-reading. You will find something new every time you go back to an earlier book. I cannot let this world go, so every two years or so, back I go again to the start. As much as I love the Niccolo books, I have had a hard time launching the Lymond series. Perhaps it is because I just can't move forward a century and admit the Niccolo books' time is over. I hope you love every minute.

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you! I certainly have so far. And I am sure you're absolutely right about needing to re-read several times to get the most out of them – also because, in the light of later events, certain actions take on a whole new significance. It looks as if I'm going to end up reading Niccolo and Lymond more or less simultaneously, which should be an interesting juxtaposition!

  4. simhedges says:

    Dunnett is a wonderfully accomplished writer who is too little known (but can be a tough read). You are so right about an HBO series for House of Niccolò and it's true of the Lymond Chronicles as well. She does have an active readership, though, with various Yahoogroup mailing lists (the main one being called “Marzipan” and the Dorothy Dunnett Society ( which publishes a quarterly magazine (both email lists and the magazine, of course, teem with spoilers for those who have not read all her books). Enjoy!

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    It's great to see how much affection she inspires in her readers – yes, I found the Dorothy Dunnett Society website and there was also a blog I stumbled across, but there were way too many spoilers so I'll head back when I've read more. 🙂 Regarding the HBO idea, I realised last night that of course if they did Lymond they'd have to either call the whole series 'Lymond' or rename the first season, because people would confuse it with 'Game of Thrones'… 😀 Thanks for your comment!

  6. chris.glass55 says:

    Highly recommend both House of Niccolo and the Lymond Chronicles! I've been reading and re-reading them for around 40 years now (dates me a bit!)and continually discover new and interesting ways of looking at the protagonists. The Internet groups are really interesting and challenge my understanding, making me constantly look a little farther into the stories. Enjoy!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I'd love to know what you think of Marthe, once you reach her. The most difficult character to get a firm grasp of.

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, there was a great deal of discussion about this person on the Dunnett blog, which is why I steered clear of it for the moment. I haven't met her yet – but of course I shall know to pay attention to her when I do; and I shall let you know!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I am glad you are enjoying the books. I have similar passion for both series! Whichever one I am reading at the time, I believe is the best – can never decide, and I suppose it's a meaningless question in the end. They are all superb. You don't mention her one-off historic novel, King Hereafter. I think it may – just possibly – be her finest, and deeply moving, so don't miss it!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Much as I love Dunnett, I could never get through King Hereafter. My favorite of all is Pawn in Frankincense, with Checkmate a close second.

  11. Pat Sibley says:

    I have been reading her books since 1972 or thereabouts, and I re-read them often. Currently, a group I'm with on Facebook is re-reading King Hereafter–it's a tough book to get into but if you can stick it out thru the first 3rd, it will pick up and you'll love it as well. The Lymond Chronicles are my favorite as I read them first. When asked in which order the novels should be read, Dunnett said Lymond first, then Niccolo then Lymond again. I recommend that, too!

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