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 descendents 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)]
THE LYMOND CHRONICLES
THE HOUSE OF NICCOLÒ