I’m tempted to follow an idea Simon had during a twitter conversation and just post a photo of this book with a single line: “Read it!” But I won’t because a) that would be cheating (right?) and b) although Dorothy Dunnett is one of my favorite authors, and most people have never heard of her, I’m always a bit afraid to recommend her to everyone.
The House of Niccolò series take place in the mid-15th century, at the height of the Renaissance, in all its glorious political intrigues and (mis)alliances. Once again Dunnett covers locations and events not often seen in historical fiction, brilliantly mixing fictional and real characters: the first book, Niccolò Rising, was mainly set in Flanders; the wonder that’s The Spring of the Ram takes us to Trebizond, last strong-hold of the Byzantine Empire, and Race of Scorpions is about the battle for Cyprus.
Two siblings – James and Charlotte – fight for control of the island and its wealth, but there’s more at stake than Cyprus’ sugar plantations. The fate of this strategic trade post may tip the balance of power between the different European Kings and Queen, between Catholics and Muslims, the Pope and the Sultan, between Genoese, Florentine, Venetians and other mercantile powers.
Both James and Charlotte know about Niccolò de Fleury’s abilities and resourcefulness and both want him on their side. They know he grew up as a mischievous apprentice in a Bruges dye-works, but that his youthful and unassuming exterior hide a brilliant mind that feeds on riddles, mathematics, mechanics, pranks and patterns of all types. A mind that over the last two books created one of the richest banks and textile companies in Europe, and played an important role in the fate of Trebizond.
So the scene is set for a fantastic romp through the Mediterranean.
Before starting Race of Scorpions I read two books that warned about the myth of the “lonely genius” that single-handedly changes the world. While in theory and in real-life I tend to agree, these characters make up one hell of a story! Niccolò is that type of person.
You’re constantly being surprised by his next move. He consistently manages to get into hard spots, but the web of connections and loyalties he’s carefully accumulated usually provide a way out – often an unexpected way, and almost always a way that makes you realize he has outwitted you, and everyone else, yet again.
There are eight books in the series and I’m reading them at the rate of one per year, to make them last. Race of Scorpions was part of my Top 10 of 2011.
As always when I post about Dorothy Dunnett I must make a disclaimer: they’re not easy books. The plot seems larger than life and the political intrigues are complex and demanding. But she rewards you ten-times over for your effort.
Little aside for those who’ve read the book (no spoilers): at one point I felt a decrease in my reading speed (and interest), when Niccolò keeps travelling from one place to the other. Two minutes after I formulated that thought Dunnett hits me with The Moth Scene. Wow. Probably the best literary scene of 2011. Also, I’m looking forward to having Gelis back in Scales of Gold – hope she’s at Philippa’s level!