Race of Scorpions: Dorothy Dunnett

★★★★

The House of Niccolò: Book III

One of the things I most enjoy about reading Dorothy Dunnett’s books is the way in which she can so effortlessly create a sense of place. As in the Lymond Chronicles, the House of Niccolò moves to a new location for each novel, for each new move in the game, and the settings are ever more exotic and brilliant. Every time I finish one of these books I’m left longing to know more about the setting; until I move onto the next in the series and am beguiled anew by somewhere else.

From Nicholas’s success in Trebizond, we follow him through his first bitter winter as  a widower, into the wars of Italy, and then to Cyprus, the island of Aphrodite, torn between the warring Lusignan half-siblings Carlotta and James who covet the crown. They, like the princes of Trebizond, are descendants of a great power which no longer has a real place for them: the Trapezuntine Emperor looked back to the vanished glories of Byzantium, while Carlotta and her half-brother are driven by the memory of their Crusader ancestors who were kings of Jerusalem when that still meant something. Nicholas is a valuable player in the game: young and imaginative, with a troop of soldiers and a fine captain under his command. The question is which of the siblings can win him to their cause, whether it be by force, flattery or seduction.

Nicholas is still an enigma to me, which I suspect is quite deliberate, even though in this book we see him growing into his abilities – both tactical and physical. Last time I mentioned the darkness which seems to increasingly underlie his character and which, perhaps, throws it into greater relief. In this book there was a much clearer explanation of who was responsible for what, in the immediate story, which shifts much of the blame away from Nicholas himself (perhaps to reassure any concerned readers). Yet there is still a sense of something much greater going on, which I don’t yet understand (Race of Scorpions is the last of the books which I’ve read before. This is the end of my re-read. From now on, it’s terra incognita).

For example, Nicholas specifically congratulates himself on the fact that ‘Stage by delightful stage, his process was activating itself.’ Whether this process simply accounts for his actions and those of others in this book, or whether it in fact heralds a much greater unfolding tapestry, I can’t imagine. And now there is a much stronger hint that other people are weaving their own webs, which may be advantageous for Nicholas but might, equally well, take advantage of him.

I have conceived a much greater distrust for the Zorzi brothers during the course of this novel and, at the risk of spoilers, would say that de’ Acciajuoli certainly seems to be directing them. Bartolommeo Zorzi speaks of the orders he must follow; and Nicholas himself is well aware of de’ Acciajuoli’s meddling influence. But I can’t yet decide whether Nicholas feels that de’ Acciajuoli’s ‘machinations’ are helping his cause or posing a threat to him. All I can gather is that Nicholas often finds, at the end of a puzzle or stratagem, that someone has already anticipated his conclusions and prepared accordingly.

In short, there is some form of very clever game going on here, which must stretch far beyond the political or mercantile problems specific to each novel, but I’m still none the wiser as to what the aim of the game is, nor who the players are. And now, of course, we’ve been introduced to the mysterious Venetian brokers’ firm of the Vatachino, who on one level are threatening because they wish to extinguish their smaller competitors, but who also seem to have a particular and unsettling interest not only in the House of Niccolò but in the dealings of St Pol & Vasquez too. So that’s another piece on the board to be considered. For now I’m happy simply trying to second-guess everyone – and hoping that, when I do find out what’s happening, it won’t be a disappointment.

With every book we’ve met new characters and here, for me, the most striking is the charismatic Zacco who initially dazzles Nicholas with his potential. Quite apart from Zacco’s charm and complexity as a character, I found him interesting because he throws a new light on Nicholas as well. For all his intelligence and worldliness, it turns out that our young Fleming is secretly an idealist: his admiration for Zacco seems to be founded on the belief that here is a ruler both capable and just, who has the force of personality to inspire his men to the greatest of feats. As time goes on, he naturally comes to revise this opinion, seeing that James can also be cruel and ruthless and that he doesn’t share Nicholas’s instinctive respect for human life.

Nevertheless, even at the end of the book, I feel that in James of Lusignan Dunnett has found one of her most compelling secondary characters – not just as a personality, but as a political leader, in the way that he drew on both Christian and Muslim aid and seems, at least temporarily, to have created a working accommodation between the two. I wish I knew more about this period and about the struggle between Carlotta and James; in fact, this entire series is showing up the gaps in my studies of Renaissance history.

As regards the established characters, one person really encapsulates the book for me (and here I have no choice but to move into spoiler territory, so please beware). That person is Katelina. Now, I have no idea what fellow readers of Dunnett’s books think of Katelina. I’ve managed to avoid virtually all discussion about this series, lest I spoil it for myself. Personally, I’ve always felt a great deal of sympathy for Katelina. I haven’t always liked her, but I see her actions as being driven by a sense of despair at the hand the world has given her. One of the weaker aspects of her storyline has been the fact that we are told numerous times that she hates Nicholas for what he has done. I never bought this. I felt that Katelina was too sensible – and too conscious of her own role in that seduction – to actually hate Nicholas. She may have grown to hate herself, but I don’t accept that her emotions could swing so drastically from one extreme to the other.

For me, the conclusion of her storyline is immensely moving in that it allows her both fulfilment and dignity. She, more than any other character in the book, is fascinated and troubled by the antiquity of the island, and she indulges her sense of its latent power – perhaps as a way to excuse her resurgent feelings for Nicholas. (Incidentally, I should note that the rate of bodice-ripping is increasing rapidly. At the end of the series it will be interesting to see which of the female characters – or need I limit it to that? – have not been uncontrollably drawn to Nicholas.) Katelina’s fears and longings become entangled with the ancient groves and altars of the island and I loved the way that Dunnett used her to explore the notion of layers of mythology and religion, each veiling but not eradicating the previous layer. This part summed it up beautifully:

It was only at night, when the frogs pulsed, and the lizards hung on the walls and obscure flying creatures prodded the bed-veils, that Katelina … heard breathing about her the ancient voice of the island. Beneath the prettiness, the chivalry, the conceits and scratchings of miniature war, the older gods were still there, threads in the earth, still brooding, still to be pacified.

And of course, the older gods can only be pacified with blood. It seems to be becoming a habit in this series to round off each novel with the death of a character, usually just as they begin to value Nicholas for his own qualities. I shall miss Katelina, but the implications of her death will surely reverberate. It remains to be seen whether Diniz Vasquez’s hard-won friendship will endure, and once again I’m going to put my money on Jordan de Ribérac turning out to be a much more dangerous and lasting enemy than the distracted Simon. It’ll be interesting to see how that develops in the next book, and also to see whether we have any more clues about the identity of the mysterious Vatachino.

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Last in this series: The Spring of the Ram

Next in this series: Scales of Gold

9 thoughts on “Race of Scorpions: Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Elaine T says:

    Katelina is a great character, fully fleshed out and well rounded.

    She's also extremely frustrating to me – most decisions she makes are bad. Her 'hate' seemed obvious to me as the turning outward of her own self-disgust at the situation she'd gotten herself into.

    i'm afraid I don't see her dignity in the end, mostly I see more folly. Yes, she handled the end well, but her being where she was is again, a bad decision on her part. IMO and all that.

    Elaine T

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Elaine! It's great to hear a different view – although in some ways it's not so different, because when I speak of Katelina's dignity at the end, I mean literally at the end, in Famagusta, when she takes stock of everything that has happened and tries to arrange things for the best for the future. I do agree with you that she doesn't exactly make the best decisions earlier on. However, for me that's more a sign of her desire to follow her heart like the men around her, in contravention of the customs of the time. No one ever said that following your heart makes you behave logically, and as I said I don't always like Katelina because she does initially come across as rather selfish. You are right about the 'turning outward of her own self-disgust'. That's exactly what I thought her feelings were and Dunnett is usually so precise in her assessment of emotions that it struck me as odd to boil this down to a shorthand of 'hating Nicholas'. But that's really a by-the-by for me.

    But this is the wonderful thing about Dunnett's characters. We may all agree in our affection for Lymond or Nicholas (although there are a few people, I bet, who find even them irritating), but there seems to be quite a spectrum of opinion on other characters such as Philippa, Marthe etc. And to me that indicates that, as you say, these characters are 'fully fleshed out' enough to feel like real people, and that we consequently all react to them in slightly different ways.

    I suppose that for me Katelina's storyline is a classic Greek-style tragedy: the tragic flaw of her pride, plus the tragic opportunity of her meeting Nicholas, brought to a height by the meddling of the ancient gods (or so she'd have us believe anyway).

    Thanks so much for your comment! As I said, I have no idea what most people think of the various characters in this series. If I had known that some people see Katelina as primarily foolish, perhaps I would have found my own reading of the character affected by that (I don't like to think that my opinions are affected by those of others, but they probably are to a slight degree). I wonder how others feel about her? Anyone?

  3. Prue Batten says:

    My journey with Katelina began with me despising her arrogance, the way she 'played' Nicholas in the first part of the first book. Or thought she did. But as the series moved on, I grew to like her, felt incredibly sad that she became such a pawn. I thought her death was a tragedy but it served to unveil even more of the gentle side of Nicco, no holds barred. In addition, it presented us with a frightening new dynamic (spoiler): that of her sister, Gelis.

    Interestingly I never ever found Katelina foolish. Far from it, I think her decisions, as you say, were driven by emotion and a desire to perhaps meet the men on common ground at the very least.

  4. Leander says:

    Thanks Prue for offering another angle on Katelina. Don't worry about that particular spoiler – the back of the fourth book gives that one away 🙂 I think you're right in saying that her death strips away Nicholas's many different masks, if only for a moment. Glad to hear you also felt some affection for her. I'd love to hear from anyone else who shares either of these points of view or who would like to put forward another reading of the character. Have there been any essays on Katelina, I wonder, as there have on Marthe?

  5. Jean Gobel says:

    I flew through this volume, just couldn't put it down–I am sleep deprived. I enjoyed this book more than the last one, where I was unhappy with the attitudes toward Nicholas. This time I felt Nicholas was more respected by his men, perhaps they felt he had grown up a bit. We did discuss his youth, didn't we?

    Katelina I could not understand. She rescues him twice, spends two nights with him, in spite of his hesitancy, and then turns on him without any explanation. Of course he knows why she presents this face, but for what purpose? No one knows of her pregnancy before she marries Simon, (and neither he nor Simon appear to know) so why the ill will? After several years of this attitude, I found her change of heart in the vale not really believeable. Of course, I was happy to see their relationship mended at the end, and to see there was apparently a deep love there. Or am I reading more into it than I should.

    I appreciate the comments expressed above. More food for thought.

    Jean G

    [Did I miss something here about Gelis?]

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Jean – I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this book more: perhaps it's the one where we begin to see the relationships between Nicholas and his officers begin to settle down a little more. As for Katelina, well, opinion's divided as you can see above! In trying to understand what she feels, I think we have to remember that she's only a teenager when she and Nicholas first meet: she's starved of real affection and fed up with the men her parents present as her suitors. I'm not sure there's any great rationale behind what she does, and afterwards I believe that she is angry with herself and so adopts this attitude towards Nicholas as a kind of self-defence. For example, it's a lot easier to blame someone else for having got you into a situation where you feel that you have to marry someone you don't really like – rather than accept that in many ways your own foolishness is to blame. And we see here that she still has very deep feelings for Nicholas.

    I don't think you have missed anything about Gelis so far. But don't worry. You'll meet her again in the next book. 🙂

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