The Unicorn Hunt (1993): Dorothy Dunnett

★★★

The House of Niccolò: Book V

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, just as you have a favourite book in a series, you’re likely to have a least favourite; and this is mine. Please be cautious if you haven’t read it because, later on, I won’t be able to avoid spoilers. For me it’s the least successful Niccolò book for the same reason The Disorderly Knights dissatisfied me: the story hares from place to place, never quite managing to take root.

In the later part of the book, I found myself dragged at a dizzying pace from Bruges to the Tyrol and then on a tour of various picturesque spots encompassing half the Mediterranean and Egypt. In each place there was a torrent of facts, throwaway references and apparently idle conversations; although I have learned never to underestimate Dunnett’s idle conversations. If The Disorderly Knights is any guide, these will coalesce to provide the driving force for the final three books of the series. But, although I may look back at the end and admire the foundations laid in this novel, it is not a satisfying book to read in its own right.

The usual Dunnett novel, as fellow fans will know, is built around a delicious but manageable flurry of action, intrigue and adventure; here these things are extended to such unprecedented complexity that I now really have no idea what’s going on. Throughout the book I found lots of allusions to the plan, the game, but I’m still none the wiser as to what it is; and I can’t make out which moves are initiated by Nicholas, which by Gelis, Adorne or the agents of the Vatachino, and which by the ubiquitous Fra Ludovico. Much of what happened felt less like a plausible development of what had come before, and more like an excuse for melodramatic encounters in exotic places (I was  bizarrely reminded, several times, of Indiana Jones).

The main theme of the book is, of course, hunting. The unicorn of the title refers explicitly to the Scottish Order of chivalry with which Nicholas is invested, to signify his increasing importance to the King. Implicitly, it perhaps refers metaphorically to Gelis’s child, which Nicholas seeks so ruthlessly throughout the book. The child may or may not exist, may or may not be healthy, and for most of the book is to all intents and purposes as mythical as the unicorn. That particular story arc, when I came to the end and could reflect on it, was very satisfying (the end, rather than the means) – and of course there were strong echoes of the superb Pawn in Frankincense.

The other hunt which drives the action of this novel is a hunt for gold: Nicholas is one of several people searching for the gold from the Ghost, which disappeared in the last book. His rivals include Anselm Adorne and his party, including his rather engaging niece Katelijne.  You may not be surprised to hear that I warmed to Katelijne who, let’s be honest, seems at the moment to be merely Philippa under another name. (As an aside, I wonder if there is a reason that the name Catherine, in all its permutations, arises so frequently in this series: Katelina; Katelijne; and Catherine de Charetty, of course.) Katelijne’s escapades, particularly with the kite, added a much needed lighter note and in fact she’s virtually the only character I really liked this time.

At the moment I can’t warm to Nicholas, who is no longer the amiable character I grew fond of in the first couple of books. Although you could explain the motivation behind his vicious battle with Simon, for example, it still felt out of character; as did his later interaction with Adorne. Even the other characters kept observing how much Nicholas had changed, almost as if they couldn’t quite believe it either. I desperately hope that he recovers some of his warmth and equanimity, because much as I enjoy following a character with a cause – and Nicholas has that in spades – I miss the qualities which made him so rich and memorable in the first place.

Let’s return to the central theme of hunting. Of course, other things are hunted this time as well: seams of precious metals; and people. And this brings me to the plot development which I found most frustrating: the divining. The reason I’ve grown to love Dunnett’s work is because she gives us characters who battle with their wits and test one another’s intellectual capacities. To have it suddenly stated, halfway through the fifth book in an eight-book series, that Nicholas has ‘special powers’ – giving him the ability to divine not only water, stone and various types of metal in the vicinity, but also the presence of certain people either by proximity or from a map – gives him an unfair advantage and completely undermines the values of the rest of the series.

This is not the time or place to go into my feelings about divining (which can be summarised as sceptical), but I was taken aback to find a supernatural power suddenly playing such a key role in a series which had, until this point, been rational and gloriously character-driven. It’s true that there were echoes of the supernatural in Lymond, with the Dame de Doubtance, but at least that was subtly enough done that doubters like myself could rationalise the events. The only explanation I can find for the introduction of Nicholas’s gift is that Dunnett suddenly realised she had plotted her hero into a corner that he couldn’t get out of without the aid of a deus ex machina. I might feel slightly less disappointed if there had been some hint of a possible supernatural element from the beginning – a hint, I hasten to add, that was noticeable to a first-time reader, rather than to someone who knew to look for it.

So I finish this instalment of the House of Niccolò with some misgivings. I have stated them honestly, in the full knowledge that some people will disagree with me. One of the joys of life is that we all have different opinions, and I’m sure that some people dislike some of my favoured instalments and characters. So let’s review where we stand now. Once again we’ve been left with a cliffhanger, which followed on the heels of gorgeous descriptions of Venice during Carnival. (Am I the only one who saw echoes of the Bruges Carnival night on which Katelina and Nicholas met?) From now on, I hope that the plot will begin to become less complicated, and that Dunnett will begin to grant us more of an overview of her intricate design. From a personal point of view, I would be very glad if the obnoxious child Henry gets some form of comeuppance, and I would also be glad if the divining were to take more of a back seat. Dunnett doesn’t need it: I have read eleven of her books now, gripped by her splendid, accurate historical fiction. It would be a shame, for me, if that changed now. But I’m looking forward to starting on the next book, in which no doubt there will be some answers – and many, many more questions.

Buy the book

Last in this series: Scales of Gold

Next in this series: To Lie with Lions

23 thoughts on “The Unicorn Hunt (1993): Dorothy Dunnett

  1. hmcmullin says:

    Oh, the best is yet to come!! DD is a master of the “what a tangled web we weave,” and I still can't figure out how she does it all amidst all her historical backgrounds. I'm amazed at how much I learned about world history from her books. One thing to keep in mind, if you're not already aware of it, is that DD set out deliberately to make Niccolo as different from Francis Crawford as she possibly could then admitted she found it impossible and Francis kept creeping back in. She was in the midst of Niccolo (don't remember how far) at the time of her first convention and talked quite a bit about her struggle, especially since she loved Francis and disliked Niccolo as much as most of her readers.

  2. Leander says:

    Oh thank you for reassuring me! I felt certain that it would all work out in the end… What you say about most readers disliking Nicholas intrigues me. Part of my trouble with this book was precisely that I didn't like him, after so long of feeling sympathetic towards him. Perhaps I'm going to find, then, that Nicholas's story is the exact opposite of Lymond's: that here is someone who we actually grow to dislike, rather than growing to love? Hmm… how fascinating! What a good thing I have To Lie with Lions right here so I can get going straight away 🙂

    I have to admit that Lymond (the character, obviously, but the books too) does cast a very long shadow!

  3. Helen says:

    I loved this book, but then The Disorderly Knights is one of my favourite Lymond books, as you know! I can understand why you had misgivings about this one, though. Nicholas is certainly very difficult to warm to, especially in the Scottish section, and I also agree that the story moves around from one location to another too quickly. I hope you enjoyed the rest of the series (I don't want to read your other posts until I finish each book as I'm trying to avoid spoilers).

  4. Jean Gobel says:

    I finished this volume yesterday, and I agree with most of your blog above, Leander. I came to like Tobie much more than previously, although sometimes he does annoy me, as he does his partners. Except for the Scottish episode with Simon, I really liked and sympathized with Nicholas, and my heart ached for him on his search. I love his manner with children of all ages, Kathi, finally his son. Reminds you of FC with the shells and Kh. I would have liked more time in each area he travelled, as you note, instead of hopping around without really learning much there. I hope Nicholas' mystic powers are not developed further, since it seems to change the character of the book for me. Dowsing for water or minerals might be OK. A little bit goes a long way. And I have never disliked any book or movie character as much as I dislike Gelis. I don't consider her just a strong and independent woman. I was somewhat surprised when Nicholas and Katolina were reconciled, but if these two do…..Nicholas will have to be very much more understanding, or charitable, than I would be. By Nicholas' explanation to Simon toward the end, as to why the child is not Simon's, could he not be putting Henry at risk? And what does Arigho mean, that Nicholas felt Henry should have been named?

  5. Leander says:

    Hello Jean – glad you enjoyed it! Arigho is the Italian diminutive of Henry, so I think that is how Nicholas chooses to think of him. You are right about the question of Simon's infertility and, for me, this leaves a fairly major plot hole. Dunnett wants us to believe that Nicholas has proven Simon's infertility to the point that both Henry and Gelis son's must be Nicholas's. Fair enough, I can accept that. But for me that would logically mean that Nicholas himself cannot be Simon's son – if Simon's infertility is so reliable a factor. Hmm…

    Enjoy the next book!

  6. Susan R Suing says:

    I have just finished the eight books of the Niccolo series and I loved them!!! It left a great hole in my life when I was done , so I ordered the first book from the library of the Crawford of Lyman series. I had read different comments that ask whom readers prefer – Nicholas or Francis? Well, I am 100 pages into The Game of Kings – and there is no contest. I MISS NICHOLAS SO MUCH! Dunnett may have cut her teeth on The Lymond Chronicles, but she became a truly great author with The House of Niccolo!!! Her ability to weave about a dozen recurring characters into the lives of hundreds of actual historical personages truly is amazing. I did totally agree with one of the commentators above when she wrote “I have never disliked any character (in literature) as much as I disliked Gelis.” Nicholas deserved so much better. I suppose I will continue with Game of Kings, but with a sad heart.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Nicholas is indeed a wonderful character and I’m so pleased you had such a marvellous time reading the books! As you’ll have seen, I started the other way around – Lymond first – and so I have always loved him more, but I think that’s a testament to Dunnett’s writing: however we first encounter her, she lures us in to this perfectly realised, perfectly captivating world.

      I must stress that Game of Kings is not the easiest book and Lymond does, basically, come across as a cad and an unreformed scoundrel, but give him a chance. I hated him for most of the book but, by the end of Queen’s Play, was completely in love with him – and my, what a rollercoaster awaits you!

      And don’t forget about King Hereafter if you like seeing how Dunnett wove fiction into history. That is exquisite in its own way.

  7. Susan R. Suing says:

    Thanks for the tips. I will continue with the Lymond Chronicles, well, just because . . . When I read Niccolo, every time she mentioned a person or a place, I would Google it and be rewarded with visual and entertaining information. Timbuktu, for example. It was once a thriving center for commerce, etc; but now is described as a very poor economy. But the pictures supplemented imagination. Book Four was my favorite (except for the last 3 or 4 pages when Gelis brought Nicholas to his knees) because of how he developed mentally and spiritually as a person. I am happy to have someone with whom to share my thoughts about the books. I’m sure I will have more about Lymond.

      • Susan R. Suing says:

        I feel rather stupid asking this question, but I must because it’s driving me crazy. In so much of what I have read I understood that the House of Niccolo series would explain Lymond’s ancestry. After all 8 books – and the Epilogue, I still can’t figure it out. There seem to be strong suggestions that somehow Kathy Sersanders and her son, Rankin, figure in the mix but that can’t be because there is no blood relationship there. There are only two, possibly three, generations between Nicholas and Francis Crawford. What am I missing? Must I finish all of the Lymond Chronicles?

      • The Idle Woman says:

        I can’t really explain without ruining some of the mystery – and I wouldn’t worry too much right now. It’s only in the last couple of Lymond books that this becomes really important. You’re on the right track though. For now, just sit back and enjoy Lymond’s adventures: it will make sense in time, and it doesn’t really matter until you’d got a fair way through the series.

      • Susan R. Suinmg says:

        Well . . . I will make an effort- simply because that seems to be the only thing I can do. And since I am just beginning the LC, I hope I can hang in there!

      • The Idle Woman says:

        You make it sound like a penance! 😉 If you’re genuinely not enjoying it by the end of Queens’ Play, then by all means stop – but since you love Dunnett’s writing so much, that seems unlikely. I am biased though: the Lymond Chronicles is my favourite series, and Lymond the most brilliant, complicated, infuriating, winning and richly-layered character I’ve come across. So I can’t be objective.

      • Susan R Suing says:

        Okay . . . it’s true; it won’t be a penance. I do love history; I do love Dunnett; I do love good writing. The odd thing is I feel about Nicholas as you describe Lymond. So many of those who “loved” him worried about his character and yet I found him to be a selfless man who’s main motivations in all 8 books seemed to be the welfare of those around him. (With the exceptions of people like Jaak deFleury and the St. Pols & others who actually deserved their come-uppance often.) He came near to death and felt pain often; i.e. trying to satisfy Godscalc’s quest for Prester John and took his lumps for his friends. He never deserved the things Gelis did to him – Gelis, the one woman to whom he ever said “I love you”. Sorry . . . I’m on my bandwagon for The Burgundian.

      • susan suing says:

        Oh, I DO love Dunnett’s writing, but not quite half way through The Queen’s Play I am wishing she would have discontinued her series about Crawford of Lymond and made Prince Phelim O’LiamRoe her new hero. At this point, she could consign Lymond to the malmsey barrel with the Duke of Clarence! Is that why you use the word “infuriating” as one of his layers?

        Sent from Mail for Windows 10

      • The Idle Woman says:

        No, I use ‘infuriating’ because Lymond is infuriating – his plans and intellect run far ahead of our (or at least my) comprehension, so he sometimes appears to be behaving in an exasperating fashion; but eventually you learn that it is all for a reason. He is infuriating, but he’s also brilliant, tormented, and surprisingly vulnerable. He is the most captivating character I’ve ever encountered. So no votes for the malmsey wine from me, I’m afraid 😉

        And remember, if you really don’t like him that much, you can always stop!

      • Susan R. Suing says:

        Hello again. I hope this somehow reaches you. I received no answer to the above comment and I am not sure how this blog “thing” works. I wish I had been a part of all the discussions above when I began reading Dorothy Dunnett’s books. I am reading in 2021 and all the exchanges above took place in 2012.

        I have stuck with the Lymond books as you suggested and am now beginning the final, Checkmate. And in all the books I have not seen the “complicated and richly layered” character that you did. I think he is, rather, arrogant, haughty, egotistical, less than human. Even as I begin the last book in its early pages, he confesses to being unmoved by his killing of four men and blase about the possible death of four more. He will get what he wants irregardless.

        I’ve said many times before that I love Dunnett’s writing. But in the Lymond Chronicles he is more than human; he flies higher than Superman, scales walls faster than Spiderman, destroys like the Hulk! Nicholas de Fleury was a character one could identify with. I so much preferred him. I never saw the arrogance, always enjoyed each novel. My favorite was the fourth when he traveled in Africa, daily learning from each experience he had. And who could ever ask for more exciting adventure than the one Dunnett wrote of when Nicholas was in Iceland?

        Last week my grandson, who is 24, noticed what I was reading and asked me about it. He loves the medieval period and does some fine drawings of knights, etc. I told him about Dunnett’s writing, but suggested that if he tried the books, he should start with the House of Niccolo. I am awfully glad I did.

  8. Susan R Suing says:

    Well, I don’t give up easy and since I love Dunnett’s writing, I am 3/4 through Pawn in Frankincense and know I will finish all the books and opinions will come at that time – lots of them. I do, however, have a question that maybe you could answer. Dunnett has a quote on page 244 of Pawn, to wit: “The law is my words. . . . . I have put five things into five things. Having all, I have put knowledge and wisdom in hunger; do not search for them in satiety. I have put riches in contentment with little: do not search for them in avarice. I have put happiness in knowledge. Do not search for it in ignorance.” Heavy stuff! I have searched through both Companions and do not find a source. Would you know if those words are a creation of the author? The Qu’an? I notice that so many comments to you originate from 2012. I wish I had been reading the books during that time, so I could have shared opinions and impressions with everyone.

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