I’m a big fan of historical novels, they’re more than 1/3 of what I’ve read in the past 5 years, and if I had to take only one genre to a desert island that would be it. As far as that makes me an expert (!), believe me when I say that Dorothy Dunnett is the best. No one can put me there like she can.

I’m always surprised at how she’s not more famous – I only know two people in person that have read her and not that many more in the virtual world. No… to be honest, I’m not that surprised, because I’m always afraid to recommend her, especially to people who don’t read much (sounds snobbish, but it’s not, believe me!). Dunnett can write the most satisfying books, but they’re not a light read. The plot is intricate and there are many characters, at times you don’t know what’s happening until two chapters later a character says something and then there’s glorious light. Dunnett never spoon feeds you and makes you work for your rewards… but oh the rewards!

The House of Niccolò series was written after her first books, the Lymond Chronicles, but follow one of Lymond’s ancestors: Nicholas vander Poele, an apprentice in a dye shop in Bruges who, with mathematical precision and the clever use of his dimples, climbs the proverbial corporate leader until he becomes head of the company. In the Lymond Chronicles, each book is set in a different place (Scotland, France, Malta, Turkey, Russia), and Nicholas also treats the world as his oyster. Book 1 starts in Bruges, with glimpses of Geneva, Venice and Milan, and this second book takes us further East.

In 1461,  20 years-old Nicholas is in Florence, where he persuades Cosimo de’ Medici to back him up on an ambitious trade journey. He will sail to the Black Sea until Trebizond, last outpost of the Byzantine outpost, and the last jewel missing in the crown of the Ottoman Empire. But things of course never run as smoothly as they should: Nicholas’s younger stepdaughter, 13 year-old Catherine, elopes with his rival in trade: a Machiavellian Genoese who races ahead of Nicholas, setting traps at each port he lands. Trebizond is a key trade connection to the East, and home to a decadent court who refuses to admit that at any moment they may fall to the Turks. Not all traders in the city are that blind and the plot is mined with political and commercial intrigue.

As always, Dunnett shows off her meticulous historical research and ability to blends historic characters with fictional ones. The meeting with Cosimo de’ Medici was especially well done –  Nicholas gets into the old man’s good graces by enchanting his grandson Cosimino with a yo-yo he made himself. But the highlights are really her descriptions of the wonders of Trebizond, the incense in the air, the languid day-to-day life of its court, the hot-baths, the arrival of the camel caravan.

Also, in this immediate-world we live in, I’m also always fascinated by a past where news traveled at a slow pace. People could take months to arrive in Trebizond from Europe, a letter just little under that time, if a ship heading for the destination you want  happens to pass by. It really makes me wonder how could anything outside one city could work and… be done. But it did and Dorothy Dunnett, better than anyone, gives you a glimpse at how trade, politics and personal relationships developed in the expanding borders of the mid-XV century.

I’d like to go to visit Trebizond – maybe to a trip around the Black Sea? The closest I’ve ever got was the entrance to the Sea, when we went to Istanbul. We were close to the ruins of a Fort that might have been the one in Dunnett’s description:

Then, three weeks on their journey, they reached the end of the Black Sea and faced its only exit: the waterway of the Bosphorus, lined by the guns of the Turks. They chose to sail through it in daylight. The ponderous Anadolu Hisari on the Asian shore and, on the right, the massive round towers of Bohasi-Kesen, its new partner. The throat-cutter, they called it; or the strait-cutter; because no ship could survive between the mouths of the two sets of cannon. They entered the Bosphorus, and the gun from Bohasi-Kesen fired.

Where Lymond was about dramatic escapades and a world changed by the ideas of the height of the Renaissance, the Niccolò series is about trade, the delicate balance of power it builds, and how it ultimately started globalization. In The Spring of the Ram, the journey undertaken by Nicholas is portrayed almost as a quest, right down to the mythic parallels. The sign of the Ram (or Aires), is the first in the Zodiac. Aires sometimes represent the Golden Fleece, sought by the heroic Jason and his Argonauts, whose steps Nicholas follows on his way to Trebizond. Dorothy Dunnett liked to play these little tricks. In Lymond, the titles were all chess moves and the story reflected it, and with Niccolò they’re all references to star signs. The next one, Race of Scorpions, will take me to Cyprus. I could go straight to it, but I want to make them last. You can only read Dorothy Dunnett for the first time once.

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