2009 was my Dorothy Dunnett year. In April I started the Lymond series and finished the sixth and last instalment in December. They had been highly recommended by the two only people I know in person that have ever read DD. They warned me the first two books were challenging, but that the full series would be one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’d ever have. And they were right.
So if her books have such an impact on those who read it, why is Dunnett not more widely known? I think I glimpsed at the answer, because although she became one of my favorite authors, I still hold back from recommending her. Every time I dare, I find myself making disclaimers: “…it’s a really complex story and there are many, many characters!”… “The hero can be often annoying, and speaks in several live and dead languages without translations… oh! and he often uses references to obscure literature”… “You need to be patient: you’ll have no idea of what is going on in certain scenes, until some chapters ahead.“
So people end up looking at me suspiciously and asking why I like the books so much.
Well, because no other historical writer has been able to take me back so vividly – she gives a new meaning to escapism. Because I’m hard pressed to remember more perfectly crafted literary characters. Because the human chess game in Pawn in Frankincense and Lymond & Philippa’s race through Lyon in Checkmate were the best scenes I’ve ever read. Ever. Because DD treats her readers like intelligent beings, and doesn’t spoon-feeds us. Because, because…
I’m a bit all over the place here, but I hope a bit of my enthusiasm seeps through. I was raving about her so much that for Christmas my boyfriend offered me the complete House of Niccolò series. When I picked up Niccolò Rising, I carried it around in my bag waiting for the right moment to start. You can only read a DD book for the first time once!
Niccolò Rising is the first of the House of Niccolò’s eight books. Dunnett meant them to become a fourteen-volume work including the Lymond Chronices. The Lymond Chronicles were written before Niccolò but is set at a later time, telling the story of descendants of characters in The House of Niccolò in the following century.
It’s set in mid-15th century Europe, mostly in Bruges (Flanders), Geneva and Milan. Bruges is just around the corner – Belgium’s own Disneyworld-like, perfectly preserved, medieval city – and now I’ll have to get back there and look at it with new eyes.
The entire series focuses on the life of Nicholas/Niccolò, who when the book opens is a 19-year-old dyer’s apprentice. He has a gift for numbers, puzzles and codes, all of which he uses to advance his plans. Throughout the story he rises in the world to become an international courier and merchant, spy, banker and mercenary.
As usual for Dunnett, the book is intricately plotted and full of elaborate and colorful details. The turns in the storyline will make your head spin – warning: take nothing for granted! Niccolò is almost the complete opposite of Lymond, which means that although he doesn’t exasperate me nearly so often, I also don’t spend most of the book anxiously waiting to get a glimpse into his head and feel awed when I finally do. Still, Niccolò Rising is a great first act to what I’m expecting to be a remarkable series. Watch this space :)