The House of Niccolò: Book VIII
And so it ends, after weeks lost in this rich, beguiling other-world: it ends with sun, and an orchard near Sevigny, and a teasing glimpse of another Francis Crawford. I stayed up until midnight last night to finish this: there was no way, at this stage, that I could go to bed with only a hundred-odd pages to go.
As the book opens, Nicholas returns to Scotland: this time, as a gentle spirit. He quietly repairs the damage which he did on his previous visit, reestablishes friendships with his fellow merchants and the Court, and plans the final steps to remove those who threaten the security of his loved ones. His efforts reach their climax in the shadow of the tumultuous disintegration of medieval Europe. Despite having studied this period at university, I’d never understood how desperately precarious the situation must have felt to those living at the time. It has taken Dorothy Dunnett to bring that home to me. As the novel draws to its close in 1482/3, all the world’s certainties have been undermined: once-mighty Burgundy, with which Nicholas associated his Bank, is in its death-throes; the cunning Louis XI of France is on his deathbed; Edward IV of England is sickening fast, while his brother Richard of Gloucester strengthens his hand on the Borders; and the Scottish throne is threatened by the increasing enmity between James III and his ambitious brother the Duke of Albany.
Politics – and the politics of Scotland in particular – play a major role throughout the story as Nicholas is buffeted hither and thither by the demands of James and Albany, doing his best to preserve the country which he has adopted as his own. As counsellor, negotiator and trader, he steps into the lacunae left by the historical record, acting as the shuttle which weaves all the threads of this series together. For a moment, I want to focus particularly on this aspect of Dunnett’s writing: on her virtuoso blending of fact and fiction (spoilers will follow). The fates of John of Mar and Anselm Adorne, for example, feel so natural as part of the plot that it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that both are fundamentally historically accurate. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that Adorne himself actually lived. While reading the series, I hadn’t dared look up any of the historical figures on Wikipedia lest I inadvertently ruin the plot for myself.
With my patchy knowledge of Scottish history, I had no idea what was going to happen next and so was swept breathlessly along on Albany’s rebellion and on the uncertain outcome of Adorne’s and Nicholas’s peace mission. I simply couldn’t tell what Dunnett had created and what was real; in retrospect, I suspect that much more than I anticipated is based on fact. I’ve said this before, but I hope you’ll allow me to say it again: having read fourteen Dunnett books in six months, I am convinced that this is epic historical fiction at its best. It provides fictional characters with a real context, but it also humanises historical fact. It shows off the potential of the genre as something that can enrich and complement history rather than, as some critics would have it, being a soft option for those who can’t be bothered to read history itself. By God, it’s set a high benchmark.
However, what I was really itching to know all along was what was going to happen to Nicholas. As the family links of the St Pols and de Fleurys multiplied throughout Gemini with dizzying speed, I found myself wishing I’d bothered to draw a family tree as I went along (I hadn’t dared look at the one in the front of the book in case it gave something away). To my surprise, the question of his parentage was never really, fully settled – save to tell us what Nicholas himself believes in his heart to be true. We were left with mere probability in the place of certainty. This was a brave move on Dunnett’s part, but it perfectly fits the characters’ own motivations: Nicholas has become mature enough that he no longer needs to cling to the St Pols and further investigation risks shattering the family he has come to love. After all, if Nicholas were accepted as a legitimate St Pol, that would render his own son illegitimate (a legal problem which Jordan de Ribérac’s deathbed legacy tidily resolves). But Nicholas isn’t the only one interested in his past; and that leads to the revelation which is the most shocking of the novel (major spoiler alert) – which occurred to me with the first hints about Elizabeth’s child, but which I couldn’t bring myself to believe until the proof was in front of me.
Julius. No doubt, when I was trying to explain my confusion over the Nicholas/Julius episode in Caprice and Rondo, many of you were stifling knowing smiles. Nicholas did mean to keep Julius behind, not because he feared that Adelina would harm Julius, but because he feared that Julius would harm him. As a twist, it was pretty major and I found myself casting my mind back (having dismissed Julius, for most of the series, as a benign and not particularly bright peacock), suddenly understanding why a young lawyer would bother to follow a boy to Bruges from Geneva; and understanding Julius’s insistence that he should join Nicholas in Scotland. In a way, I’d been right when I’d assumed he just wanted to come and enjoy Nicholas’s success, helping him to spend his money; I just hadn’t realised quite what that would entail. If this revelation was planned from the very beginning, I can only imagine how many subtle clues I missed; when I eventually go back to read the series again, I’ll find myself tracing a completely different story through the various instalments. As for my other, many, incorrect guesses… Although I could be forgiven for having picked up on Jodi and Margaret as a perfect match, that sadly never came to pass. Rankin’s significance, on the other hand, went right under my radar, partly because I didn’t cotton on to the name as a diminutive and partly because Henry and Simon looked so similar to Lymond that I was fully expecting the Crawford connection to have something to do with them (an expectation that was obviously thwarted after their plunge into the river).
I don’t feel as emotionally drained as I did on finishing Checkmate: indeed, throughout the House of Niccolò my engagement with the plot and the characters has been more intellectual than emotional. I’ve found Nicholas challenging and interesting as a character but I haven’t hung on every stage of his personal development quite as anxiously as I did on Lymond’s. In some ways, I think that’s because I never really believed that Nicholas could be hurt, unlike Lymond; he was always too far ahead of the game, with too many contingency plans laid. He didn’t need me to worry about him: if he was ever in a truly dire situation, I could rely on the fact that Ludovico da Bologna (astonishingly, a real person) was probably somewhere nearby ready to renew his erratic and unwelcome pastorship. Of course I want to hear what other people feel about the contrast between Nicholas and Lymond, not merely in the sense of which is more attractive as a character, but also their motivations and how they develop through the course of the series. I also look forward to hearing more about how Dorothy Dunnett crafted her novels: how far was the labyrinthine plot worked out from the beginning, for example? Of the many twists, turns and revelations, were they always intended to be part of the plot or did they arise as she spotted opportunities to introduce them?
As for the epilogue… I understand that it divides people. It divided me (it really did; I’m not just being diplomatic). On one hand I didn’t think it was necessary: I often feel that epilogues are unnecessary and here the characters seemed to be performing solely for the reader’s benefit, neatly explaining who everyone was. On the other hand, it was interesting to have firm answers about exactly how Nicholas and Lymond were related; whether we needed those answers is another question. (On that subject, I could have done without Nicholas’s ‘flash-forward’ visions, which veered back into the supernatural. Is the phrase ‘Say good night to the dark‘, which startled me so much in To Lie with Lions, supposed to be one of these foreshadowings?) In short, the epilogue reminded me a little – don’t laugh – of the drawn-out ending of the film version of The Return of the King. It didn’t need to be there. The story might have concluded more elegantly without it. It felt a bit limp. But, as I had grown fond of these characters, it was no hardship to spend a bit more time in their presence.
Speaking of which, I would pay good money to read an an historical spin-off in which Kathi Sersanders and Philippa Somerville join forces and rampage gleefully across the Renaissance world. Anyone game?
Last in this series: Caprice and Rondo
55 thoughts on “Gemini (2000): Dorothy Dunnett”
I confess to a wry smile when reading your comment about Julius and Nicholas in C&R! I'm so glad you enjoyed the books. I've loved them for a long time and it's a joy to come across a fellow addict. I knew Dorothy a little and loved her infectious laugh, her zest for life, her lightly- carried scholarship and her generous hand with a malt whisky…
Join us in raising a glass to DD at 1pm on Saturday, International Dorothy Dunnett Day.
Thanks for your comment! I'll definitely be there on Saturday with the Central London people, soaking up all the knowledge of people who've read the books several more times than I have (and probably thinking, 'God; I missed that bit; I'll have to go back and read it again') 🙂
Lucky you to have actually known Dorothy! A very remarkable woman, I'm sure.
Reading DD is a bit exhausting, isn't it?! She had a most amazing mind, to weave all those people, places and the history together. At the first DD convention in 1990 we visited Linlithgow and the castle, where they dedicated a plaque to Anselm Adorne. It was a bit shivery to walk among so much history, both there and in Edinburgh. I think it took her awhile to realize what an impact her books had on people. When convention goers got too absorbed in some of the various aspects of her books and the psychology of some of the characters she'd say “but they're just books, for Heaven's sake.”
Reading your reviews/thoughts on the series, I am convinced that even after so many of my own readings, I am missing slabs of intent, and must go back. I tried a month ago, to start, but realised I have to be in the right mood to begin again. For me they are winter books requiring concentration, and as we enter summer here in Australia, it will be some time before I begin again.
The difficulty with Dunnett is that she HAS set the benchmark so high. I always leave current hist.fict authors feeling disappointed that I haven't, and probably never will, find another of her ilk.
Lovely lovely series of blogpost. Thank you!
Thank you so much Prue. I'm glad you've enjoyed them; and obviously, I've thoroughly enjoyed writing them! Please do keep reading even as I move on to other things. I'm going to continue my quest for good historical fiction: there must be more out there! Similarly, if you happen across anything of a similar kind, do let me know…
Enjoy your summer! I am so envious: it's getting really chilly here in London now.
of all the novels of Dorothy Dunnett, GEMINI is the only one I have not re-read. Somehow I just can't bring myself to read it knowing it was her last book, BUT I do prefer the more compex character of Nicholas compared to Francis.
I'm intrigued, Mike: why is that? Is it that you feel, being her last book, it has an emotional impact for reasons other than the story itself? Hmm… I'm still processing my thoughts on Lymond vs Nicholas. The latter is more conflicted, more selfish, less likable and more real in many ways; but the former's wit, elegance and nobility appeals more to my girlish naivete 😀
It took me over thirty years to read the last of the Swallows and Amazons series (children messing about in boats) – just because it was the last one, and then there wouldn't be any others, so I can completely understand not wanting to read Gemini!
Leander, I have so enjoyed reading your blog on DD's books. You bring back all my pleasure in them with the added joy of doing it with someone who appreciates the many dimensions of the books. After I finished Gemini I went back and read the first chapter of Niccolo Rising, and the clues are all ther if I had the wit ( or foreknowledge) to spot them! Look forward to seeing you on Saturday.
How wonderful 🙂 But that's the sign of a great book, that the plot and characters take on lives of their own. For example, I'm sure that Shakespeare didn't intend half the hidden meanings that we can draw from his work. And the fact that people want to spend time discussing the characters and delving deeper into this world must be one of the most flattering things an author can hear. She may not have always agreed with what we, the readers, came up with, of course!
Ah, I see what you mean – so you always know there's going to be one more waiting for you. Yes, I can understand that. I couldn't do that myself. I'm too desperate to reach the end and to see what happens 🙂 So I hugely admire your restraint…
Thanks Betty! So exciting to 'meet' someone else who'll be there on Saturday too. Can't wait to meet you in person. I shall be expecting scintillating insights from all of you, mind, while as a Dunnett newbie I'll be sitting at your feet and absorbing all your knowledge by osmosis. 🙂
I too have never re-read Gemini. I never considered it was because it is The Very Last Book. But maybe.
Unlike Checkmate, which I think is brilliantly paced, I remember being frustrated with the pacing of Gemini but I don't remember exactly why. I think it had to do with soooo MANY loose ends to tie up. Maybe the Nicholas books didn't have more characters than the Lymond books, but it seemed like it. The peripheral characters in Lymond, although beautifully drawn, weren't covered in as much depth as she covered the peripheral characters in Nicholas' books. I liked Alec Guthrie but it didn't bother me that I didn't know much about him. Compare that to Tobie, Astorre etc. It only just this moment occurred to me that maybe one of the reasons she created so many characters was to keep our minds off of Julius. If Julius had been more special as a character, like Jerrott perhaps, we might have suspected him earlier.
Like you, I wasn't wild about the epilogue. But it is still a brilliant series and she has spoiled me forever for historical fiction.
Are you going to read King Hereafter? In some ways it is her most flawed novel because she tries to do too much in it, but in other ways I think it is her most brilliant. It is a true love letter to Scotland.
Congratulations on finishing!
MaryB, I totally agree with your comment about the more rounded peripheral characters in the Niccolo books. I think Tobie is my favourite, though Marian de Charetty comes in second.
Thanks maryb! You know, I think you might be right about the mass of characters vs Julius… that had never crossed my mind, but it makes perfect sense. Oh and I do very much plan to read King Hereafter. I can't possibly fail to complete the set! 🙂 In the meantime, though, I'm seeking out other books to fill the Dunnett-shaped hole in my life…
I read and re-read both the Lymond Chronicles and The Niccolo Series several times, and have never read anything as emotionally devastating as the final sequence in Checkmate. I was introduced to Dorothy Dunnett with King Hereafter, and can heartily recommend it. The loce story is very touching, and his final goodby to her is heartbreaking. Dorothy Dunnett created the most engaging men, but Thorfinn-Macbeth is very special.
Thank you very much for your thoughts, Kris – both on Checkmate, with which I heartily agree, and on King Hereafter. I shall have to seek it out… 🙂
If you can get past the Time Travel aspect of these, the plot, the engaging characters, the thorough research and excellent writing in “The Outlander Series” by Diana Gabaldon, along with the attendant Lord John Grey Novels and Novellas amy grab your attention.
I have to confess that second to Dorothy Dunnett, Gabaldon is favorite author. Don't be fooled by the popularity of these books among the romance addicts.
Thorfinn – Macbeth, Francis Crawford, Nicholas van der Poele de Fleury and James Alexander Malcolm McKEnzie Fraser are men only a women could create.
I do have to confess that time-travel novels are generally a turn-off for me and that's why I've steered clear of the Outlander series so far. This may well be a big mistake. I know that a lot of people like them very much but at the moment I would fear being unable to see the brilliant side of the novels because of the conceptual issues I have with the genre. But I am worried that I'm missing out on something wonderful!
Interesting idea that these heroes could only have been written by a woman. I am desperately trying to think of a character to prove you wrong but have a complete blank. If anyone can help me out, please, do!!!! 😀
totally different but try the 'Kristin Lavransdatter' series by Sigrid Unsted. Written in a different era, but, an interesting look at post viking Norway.
Also I have found listening to the audio versions of Nicholas and Francis puts a slightly different slant than reading
Ah, I'm so happy you recommended that! It's been on my Amazon wishlist for ages but I have never found anyone who's read it. Thank you for the thumbs-up!
Having been born and raised in Norway, I can heartily recommend the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy. Erland does annoy me a little early on, but he is another flawed hero; I do relate to the guilt driven decision made by Kristin as many Luthern addicted Norwegians would. Definately a great read. (I have read them both in the original Norwegian and the English translation.)
Excellent! Yet another promising piece of historical fiction to pursue… Thank you so much ladies!
I totally understand your reluctance to pick up the Outlander series due to the time travel aspect. I picked it up and put it back on the shelf several times for that reason before I actually decided to give it a go. I have not regretted it, although Dunnett is still my favorite, and I wish she was still with us and writing..
One of my most memorable holidays was visiting Brugges while rereading Niccolo Rising. I went to every place noted in the books, walked the streets that Niccolo walked. A highlight was the Gruuthuse museum where I was able to see the small items Dorothy would describe in great detail; shoes, birdcages,instruments etc. I visited the graves of Adorno and his wife in Jerusalemkirk. It made the book come alive and I marveled at the complete accuracy of DD's wonderful story.
Hello Wendy – that sounds like a wonderful holiday! I am quite tempted to go to Bruges now… And I think I would appreciate it even more having finished the series (as I said, my knowledge of the events described in the books was so limited that I wasn't even aware that Adorne was a real person!). One day, one day…
You should definitely give Gabaldon's series a read. Don't look at them so much as time travel, more as a woman being a little “ahead of her time” in her knowledge and abilities, while trying not to be burned as a witch! The occasional switch in time frames throughout the books does not, for me, detract from a great love story and its historical surroundings.
Ref Outlander – I avoided for the longest time due to the time travel theme. It really turned me off but eventually I gave in and was completely grabbed by the first one. I became almost as addicted to the series as with Dunnett but have stalled near the end. Partly because I know there's a massive cliff hanger and not yet a follow up. I know exactly what you mean by being put off by the time travel – I'm not into fantasy worlds or sci fi – yet in the end I was so happy I had given them a chance. I too had a DD shaped hole which was slightly filled by Gabaldon…..
Two very persuasive comments here! Thank you both for your thoughts… I have a rather epic 'to read' list at the moment, but perhaps I will keep an eye open for Gabaldon's work at the library and see how I get on with it. Lots to get through first though. 🙂
I have to jump in here to say that Eigon's comment (and now by way of Google) has solved for me a fifty year old mystery! I had read books about young children, boats, girls playing pirates, located in England, but could never recall the titles or author. Consequently my daughter or granddaughters did not get the pleasure of being introduced to them. But my mystery is solved. Thank you!
Wow: that's great news! They're smashing books – maybe you can catch up on them with your granddaughters now?
Leander, I loved your comments so much. It's a strange but great pleasure to first-read the series again through someone else's eyes. If you're interested in the foreshadowing moments (what's also called RFL – radio free Lymond) there's a file with (almost) all the instances on the marzipan files. It's called ShowLetter RFL. – I liked these RFL moments once I knew what they were about, because I started with the HoN and read LC afterwards. I admit I feel much more at home with Nicholas, while Lymond upsets me emotionally in ways that are just not sane. I love both, but I'm a little afraid of the impact the LC have on me.
“Lymond upsets me emotionally in ways that are just not sane.”
Oh I love this! I'm sure many, many readers would agree with you 🙂 Thanks for the link suggestion – I actually wasn't a huge fan of the whole foreshadowing thing, so I might prefer not to go into it too much, but I can still recognise that it's a very clever way of tying both series together. And of course it must have been fascinating for you, coming to Niccolo first and Lymond later.
For me, I suppose I feel that the Lymond Chronicles are so amazing precisely because they bypass the brain and go straight to the heart…
I have been thinking a lot Bout the differences between Lymond and Nicholas. I think Nicholas desperately wanted people to love him as he was and when they wouldn't he set out, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy them. Lymond on the other hand, seemed to be loved by everyone, which he did not want, and in pushing them away, causes all his problems.
Also, think about it: we call them the Nicholas books and the Lymond chronicles. One is right there, the other is closed off.
Just as an aside, I am always amazed when people recommend the Gabaldon books. You will be disappointed.
Thank you for your comment, Kate! I think you may be on to something about Nicholas's and Lymond's underlying motives 🙂 As for the Gabaldon books, we shall see… So many people have been kind enough to recommend them that I feel I should look into them at some point, if only to make up my own mind 🙂
Yes, the Gabaldon books are certainly a feast. They are, however, totally not like Dunnett, although Gabaldon is a great fan of DD and it's through her comments that I came across Dunnett's books. Very strong on character building, rambling at times, so you need a lot of patience sometimes. – Another author loved by Dunnett fans as well as by Gabaldon is Patrick O'Brian, the only other author as deep, clever, and delightful as Dunnett. It's interesting how these authors seem to fascinate the same set of readers.
Funnily enough, a friend – completely unaware of Dunnett – was raving to me about Patrick O'Brian. And I certainly loved the film “Master and Commander” so perhaps I should give him a go. Thank you!
Fascinating reviews of The House of Niccolo series, Leander. You've brought back so many memories – even after more than a decade. I enjoyed them at the time; but never felt the urge to re-read or even re-visit. Whereas with The Lymond Chronicles, I read 'em all x 3!
For me, N falls between two stools of heroes: he's inordinately clever, shrewd and physically strong and at the same time he has psychic abilities. I feel, rather like you, that he should be either/or rather than both/and, as this combination makes him a less convincing hero.
Lymond – and, yes, he's an absolute pain! – is more in the classic hero mould, complex but ultimately acting for the greater good. (It is a very long time since I read it, but FC might fit the main thesis of Joseph Campbell's 'Hero of a Thousand Faces'.) Speculation aside, can confess that following FC's (largely improbable, it must be said) exploits and – expecially – his capacity for endurance near-matched by that of Philippa, helped me through some tough times. Which, I suppose, is the essential purpose of The Hero …?
Ouf, apologies for the essay.
PS Second recommendation of PO'B, and would add Zoe Oldenbourg and Helle Haase (and, of course, Hilary Mantel – 'A Place of Greater Safety' is wonderful, if you've been enthralled by the Thomas Cromwell series thus far). Gabaldon? Erm, no.
Thank you so much, Min! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the contrast between the two protagonists. Interesting that you mention Campbell. I started trying to read his 'Hero' book once but found it pretty hard-going. Mind you, I should never let that deter me from finishing a book! Never apologise for an essay on my blog – I love getting long thoughtful comments 🙂
I have tried “The World is not Enough” by Oldenbourg twice and I'm afraid I found it very frustrating, because the characters seemed very one-dimensional. However I'm aware that it has quite a following. I'm determined to force myself to read it through to the end one day, if only so that I can comment on it from a perspective of full understanding. But I'm very grateful that you took the time to suggest some other things and thanks in particular for the recommendation of Haase, whom I don't know.
Incidentally, your comment led me to search for Haase and I stumbled across this forum, which actually has a thread in which a poster states that she's just finished Lymond and can anyone suggest any other similar books to fill the gap… No doubt there's lots of other interesting material on there too:
Have just come across your blog and only read one entry so far but will come back for more. I first read the Lymond series in the 1970s and was immediately hooked, reading until two or three in the morning. Then started on the Nicholo series. For some unknown reason, probably to do with family and work, I entirely missed the last book and thought the previous book was the last one where Gelis sails away, giving Nicholas a triumphant look. Then last year I discovered Gemini – I was over the moon and it rekindled my obsession with the books. I reread Lymond then Niccolo then read them all again in the order suggested. My next task will be to read them together with the Companions which I have now purchased. I have also had to purchase second-hand copies of Lymond as first time round I borrowed them from the library.
I was also recommended to read The Outlander series and I think I have read two or three books. To be honest, they annoy me slightly. I don't think the quite gets the Scottish character. They are well written but yes wordy and just something doesn't quite grab me. But I know loads of friends who love her.
I'll be back to read some more.
I agree about the soft porn aspect of Galbadons writing. A sign of our culture? I don’t know. I have read them all except fir the porn parts which I always skip. The history is good. She writes scenes and then glues them together which does give you a glitch or three where details don’t line up….unless I just missed something myself.
Thank you very much for your lovely comment. Yes, I'm in a similar position in that my shelves are filling up with lovingly dog-eared second-hand paperbacks of Dunnett novels! I'm going to seek out the Companions soon – do let me know how they change your reading experience when you embark on your project. Thanks too for sharing your thoughts on Outlander. At the moment opinion seems to be divided pretty much half and half.
I hope you enjoy some of the other posts here and please do keep commenting!
Finished Gemini yesterday. I didn't push quite so hard to finish as I did the prior volumes, hoping to observe more of clues. As our family genealogist for almost 40 years, it was thrilling to see action taking place where my Scottish Barclay ancestors came from, around the Dalkeith, Newbattle, Dalhousie area.
I became a bit tired of the three young royals in this book, although their exploits are what form the background of this volume. I was not completely satisfied with the conclusion of the Bonne problem, but I did not want her to Nicholas' daughter, either. I was totally surprised when the villain was revealed, but looking back, wondered why I hadn't seen it coming. He was probably my least favorite of the main characters. And lastly, I was only half pleased with the final resolution to which the whole series was aimed. I went back and immediately re-read the last two chapters to be sure of what I has just learned. I felt that by making Jordan de Fleury his heir, Fat Father Jordan was in effect admitting that Nicholas was his son, without making Nicholas' marriage illegal and his son a bastard. Was he perhaps on his deathbed, attempting to correct the harm he had done to Nicholas? It seemed some of the people closest to Nicholas held on to their secrets too long — John, Bel, for instance. The epilogue did not mention Robin. May we assume he made it to the happy picture we are given? All that said, I did enjoy this book, and the series.
I have been living in the world of Dunnett since the end of September, two and a half months. Fourteen thick volumes, edge of your seat action and intrigue, late nights with a cup of tea (or perhaps a glass or two of wine?) and now I am still in that world. I feel bereft. What can possibly replace it? Shall I find something different, or — shall I immediately start all over again on the worlds of Niccolo and Lymond? And in what order?
Congratulations Jean! Now you take a deep breath and order the Dorothy Dunnett Companions from Amazon 🙂
Seriously, though, I can't really suggest much appropriate fiction to fill in the gaps because I'm still looking for it myself! But I'll try to share some ideas with you. Many people have told me that I should read King Hereafter, especially because I had such a good time reading about the Vikings recently, so that might be something you want to consider. On the other hand, if I can suggest historical fiction from a slightly different period, you might like Mary Renault if you haven't already read any of her books. Her vision of the classical world is just astonishing and in the absence of any more easily-available Dunnett, I'm beginning to crave her novels again. Perhaps a Renault reread will be next year's project. 🙂 And from that period of historical fiction you also have Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian (beautiful) and Robert Graves's Claudius novels. If you're after densely-written historical fiction set in England, there are Sharon Penman's novels – the series beginning with 'When Christ and His Saints Slept' takes you all the way through from the civil war of Stephen and Maud, circa 1100, to the time of Richard the Lionheart. I enjoy these, but the characterisation isn't as compelling as Dunnett's (whose is?!) and Penman also has a habit of using the word 'mayhap' too much. Nevertheless, they're good, solid, meaty reads and they bring the period to life very well.
There were a number of loose ends in Gemini, it's true. Bonne wasn't really sorted out and I don't feel that I ever had a satisfactory answer about Nicholas's parentage. On the other hand, I'm not sure that I needed a firm answer on that: in some ways I thought it was rather brave for her simply to leave Nicholas as he was, without feeling the need to go into great detail about the truth of the matter. He is important, after all, for what comes after him, not what comes before.
(Late comment) I read Nicholas first (I think I’ve read the series twice) when about half the series was out and I had to wait for the last few. I had trouble getting started with Francis Crawford–The! Best! Man! Around! Is! Back!–and took some advice to start with The Disorderly Knights, read to the end, then backed up and read 1&2. To me Nicholas started out “good”, wanting to make a name for himself, really fulfill his potential. Then the de St. Pol’s, Marian, Katarina, turned Nicholas from a…creator into someone bitter and wanting to destroy. The last books bring him out of it and to peace, finally.
Lymond, on the other hand, starts out bitter and destructive, and is redeemed finally in the final book. While he might be a great courtier, I would always be wary of him. He might still destroy you even if you’re an innocent by stander. Nicholas didn’t start out like, although he’s similar by the time he hits bottom. I was always rooting for Nicholas to recover and have a happy ending!
For other writers of historical novels, as other have said, Penman. I liked Celeste de Blasis you has a several book generational series set mostly on the east coast of the US in the 1800s (IIRC). Definitely falls on the romance side though, and I think out of print.
I read the first book or two of Gabaldon, and thought it was okay. Passed it off to a friend who’s ga-ga over it and still thanks me for recommending it.
Colleen McCullough’s Rome series. Decent sense-of-place ancient Roman mysteries–Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis (I think Saylor is a better prose stylist, for Davis is more fun, at least in the earlier books).
A possibly odd recommendation–if you like the unreliable narrator, twisty plot, and wonderful characters, try Megan Whalen Turner, The Queen’s Thief series. The first book is classified as children’s I think but probably should be young adult. The latter books definitely young adult as the themes get darker. Set in an alternative Mediterranean (yes, they’re fantasy) with early Renaissance age technology (watches, guns). The Thief, Gen (Eugenides) is from the mountain queendom of Eddis. They are caught between two coastal countries, Sounis and Attolia. All are facing possible invasion by another country. Anyway, seriously, they’re really, really good.
Thanks for this, Melita! I can sympathise with your initial reaction to Lymond. In other circumstances I suppose I’d be rather scathing about him as a kind of ‘author’s darling’, but in this case I was completely bowled over by him too after a while. And I always thought that was odd because, like you, I’d started with Nicholas and I tend to prefer the characters I meet first.
I really enjoyed Penman’s Sunne in Splendour and her first Eleanor of Aquitaine books, which I must have read seven or eight years ago, but I was less engaged by Lionheart. Recently I’ve bought her Welsh series and I’m keen to give her another go. As for Gabaldon… I’ve read the first book and really didn’t like it. I know I’m the only one in the world, but I’ve tried, and I’ve scan-watched the TV series, and I’m still not sold. I didn’t even write a review because I know so many people love it that I would be scolded for failing to appreciate it. :-S
But thanks for the other recommendations. I’ve encountered Davis in the form of Master and God, which I loved, but I haven’t come across Megan Whalen Turner at all. As you might have guessed from my various posts on Robin Hobb and Guy Gavriel Kay, I actually rather like fantasy. Something to consider for the future… thanks!
To my recommendations before, I would now add Manda Scott, who is exactly as wonderful as everyone told me she would be. I’m hoarding her last two books so that I have something to look forward to reading in my summer break in a few weeks’ time. 🙂
I love your reviews of the Lymond and Niccolo books — there’s no better historical fiction writer that Dorothy Dunnett! It’s interesting — I read (and loved) the Gabaldon books; learning that she loved Dunnett so much led me to these two series. But now I cannot enjoy a re-read of the OUTLANDER books; they just don’t stand up as well as the Dunnett books!
Regarding Nicholas’s parentage: I think Henry’s appearance proves definitively that Simon is indeed Nicholas’s father; if Nicholas provided the DNA that created a Simon clone, he must have Simon’s DNA. Interestingly, one could also argue this implies that Simon might in fact be Jordan’s father, as Gelis declares on that infamous wedding night.
Ugh — so complicated! I just gave myself a headache!
Thanks Liz! I came to Outlander after reading Dunnett – took it the wrong way, you see – and must confess (in a very quiet voice, so as not to be overheard) that it didn’t do all that much for me. I even tried watching the series as well, but despite its beautiful aesthetic I couldn’t warm to it as so many people do.
I’m afraid it’s been too long since I read the book to plunge into debate about your comments over the DNA, as I don’t remember the details, but it’s a good point. Next time I embark on a Niccolo reading, I will come back and share my more informed thoughts! 😉
I love your review, although yes, I was reading your comments about Julius with a bit of a grin, though even with my knowledge from earlier readings I interpreted it as Niccolo losing his temper with Julius because of various incidents including the fall in the church.
I was also interested that you picked up on the “say goodnight to the dark”. When I reread Unicorn Hunt a few weeks ago I noticed a few of the obvious references to Checkmate, as well as a flash-forward to later in Unicorn Hunt itself and the way the writing introduced them then led me to identify a few more flash-forwards that were otherwise very subtle and not particularly noticeable.
And then I noticed a few more flash-forwards in To Lie With Lions, and in that scene after the Nativity Play there are several links to Pawn in Frankincense, not just the quote from Mikal. Niccolo talks about a knife, but he is also clearly pre-living Lymond’s guilt over killing his son Khaireddin. In fact I have read To Lie With Lions about 3 times before without spotting any of the references in that scene to Pawn in Frankincense and thus completely misunderstanding why Niccolo reacts so weirdly to the death of Adorne’s son, but then in previous rereadings of these books I’ve tended to skip rereading ones like Unicorn Hunt that I don’t like so much and thus hadn’t been primed by all the foreshadowing in that book.
I think my ratings of the books tie in pretty well with yours, in that I don’t find Unicorn Hunt or Caprice and Rondo as good as the others, though I’ve disliked Race of Scorpions on both readings of it.
By the way, regarding Henry’s looks, you might be interested in a speech Dorothy Dunnett gave following the publication of Gemini. It helped identify the Julius hints, but it also mentions that Henry looking so much like Simon was indeed a deliberate indication of Niccolo being legitimate. Niccolo’s grey eyes and dimples come from Thibault de Fleury, as indicated by the descripition when Gelis visits him.
Oops, forgot to leave the link to Dunnett’s speech:
Further comments on Lymond vs. Niccolo:
I have just been rereading the full set of the Niccolo series for the first time all in one go (the first time I read them all it was with a gap of a few years between the last and when Gemini was published). After much thought, I think there are lots of similarities between Lymond and Niccolo, in particular the way they are both intensely private people, and their stories are tied up in their attitudes towards their own births, and to their mothers.
But overall in the Niccolo series it feels to me like Nicholas is “growing up” – even as late as Caprice and Rondo other people treat him as immature, and he occasionally acknowledges some of his reactions are “puerile”. And much of the story seems concerned with him acknowledging his actual guilt and also acknowledging the fact that he blames and cannot forgive his mother.
Whereas Lymond, right from the start of the books, is clearly aware of his own guilt, and even takes on more of it than he needs to, and his character development seems more like him gaining a new perspective than becoming mature. Although I’ve read commentators elsewhere who think that Lymond’s self-hatred is childish, I know from my experience of close friends that that kind of deeply-held feeling of unworthiness may be misguided but that does not make it childish, nor does it make that person any less deserving of respect. So I find I am able to empathise with Lymond’s feelings of self-disgust, though I still can’t put myself in his shoes when it comes to his attitude regarding his birth, I still can’t work out what he felt about that or why, and I can’t feel any of those feelings when reading the books in the way I can feel Philippa’s changing emotions.
I have to say that there is no way on earth anyone could possibly compare Dorothy Dunnett’s two series of novels with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books. If for only because of the constant and repetitive sex scenes between our two time travelers. I gave up at book three because I just couldn’t take the soft-porn anymore. If that’s great writing we’re doomed!
Sometimes when I don’t have a book to hand that engrosses me, or any immediate prospect of finding one, rather than settle for lesser fare, I scroll through reviews of the ones that have stood the test of time and talent and memory. The ones that you don’t so much finish as transfer luminously from page to mind – where the images and landscapes, characters and emotions don’t just statically endure over the years but dance you through them. We all have our private pantheon of authors and works, single scenes and exquisite moments. The secret garden we retreat to and marvel at, the words someone else wrote – but just for you – or if you are in a generous mood someone who might cherish them like you.
So, Dorothy Dunnett – The Lymond Chronicles – begun 50 years ago – 15 years old (and then decades for the next and next and next to be written – The King Hereafter – The House of Niccolò) – a charter member of my pantheon. Scrolling through dozens of Amazon reviews recently of Game of Kings, I came across one that stood out, that resonated, that got it right! I wished I knew what that person thought of the rest of the series – of Niccolò – other works. And then I reread the review and saw the fateful words – for my full review see my blog at theidlewoman.net! I don’t read blogs, I predate them! But for Dunnett, I made an exception, how not?
Your reviews were pitch perfect, beautifully written and deeply insightful – I knew Dunnett was the best since I was 15 but I loved reading you reach the same conclusion, for all the right reasons! But before I could trust you completely, I cheated a bit – how did you score Pawn in Frankincense (5 stars 👍); Checkmate (5 stars👍); ( …but the words were for her daughter – exquisite 👍); and I spot checked 3 other works in my pantheon – Knowledge of Angels (5 stars 👍); Lions of Al Rasan (5 stars 👍); and Prince of Foxes (a very affectionate 4 stars👍 – I read it before I read Lymond! And reread it more than 50 years later, just a couple of weeks before I found your blog, to see if it stood up well – and we agree – it has!)
So what can I say but thank you for agreeing with me so beautifully. I never managed to convince anyone to read Dunnett – and she did not make it easy with the first 150 pages of Game of Kings – but if I had it to do it all over, I would just refer them to your blog. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
By the way, score me in the camp that threw Checkmate across the room with 20 pages to go! I just stared at it for 3 days – writing my own ending – before I picked it up again and applauded Dunnett’s infinitely better one.
And Outlander v Dunnett? Not in this life or any past one!