Archive for the ‘Dorothy Dunnett’ Category

Dorothy Dunnett’s books are complicated, dense—hard to read. Intensely rewarding to those who are prepared to make the effort, but I will never blame the reader who tires of the inexplicable events thronging upon one another, bursting with detail and larded with long quotations (often in not only foreign languages, but ANTIQUE foreign languages). Readers just embarking on the series may feel justifiably irked—at times, the book seems to be written in code–and Ms. Dunnett revels in keeping her readers mystified. She is as adept as any detective novel writer in hiding clues, or providing misleading ones.

But that said, the books are quite irresistible to the thinking reader, and as for Lymond himself—HEAVENS, what a dreamboat.bronzino-portrait_of_a_young_man Dorothy dotes on him, and is constantly gloating over his gleaming golden hair, his brilliant blue eyes, his amazing beauty of face and figure. But that is not all! Lymond is an inspired commander of men, a genius at math and music, speaks many languages fluently, has a marvelous gift of invention and a fluent wit. Well. What female can resist these charms? Not me, certainly.

Lymond’s story is firmly set in the whirl and bustle of 16th century Europe: Scotland battling England, England battling France, and the rest of Europe engaged in constant struggles, with each other, with the pope, against the pope–at times joining together to combat Sultan Suleiman. Other times actually joining with him against their neighbors. The demands of trade and the shifting politics of the world were fierce, as they are now, and clever men who could manipulate money and power rose to the top then as they do now. While Lymond is—regrettably—fictional, his world is not, and he has to do with many historical figures, in a very believable solid way.

The six books in the Chronicles span a period of about 15 years; culpably, I didn’t keep track of the years, but Lymond is perhaps 20 in the first book, when he returns to Scotland from exile, and in his mid-30’s at the end of the series. His transformation from a brilliant brittle boy into a brilliant mature and loving man is a main thread in the books, braided into the many other stories. His character is constantly being misprized, maligned, and his characteristic response is keep aloof, allowing the most horrible rumours to build. Indeed, on my last reading I kept thinking, OH COME ON, LYMOND—tell your brother/mother/friend what’s going on. SPIT it out for god’s sake. As he himself says to his brother: “Talk to me, Richard. It isn’t difficult. Move the teeth and agitate the tongue.” Too often something that could have been succinctly explained is left to fester and ghastly outcomes ensue. Which would be the PLOT, do you see, so one shouldn’t complain.

Lymond is haunted by the most extraordinarily wicked villains whose machinations he only manages to thwart after long and painful struggles—death averted at the last minute, torments endured, battles almost lost. The story winds around his attempts to pursue his ambitions despite the constant roadblocks thrown up by a collection of very bad men and women. All 6 books are dense with incident, every page laden with entertainment—and in it all there is the joyful language, the delight in beauty—such descriptions, such scenes! The vocabulary is lush, the world created so real, so engaging.

And how the heart sinks, coming finally to those words, The End.

I have written a summary of the action, here. Of course, it does not detail each event, but even just a broad outline is quite lengthy. I have included the pre-story bits which explain what on earth is going on—be warned that this is a total SPOILER!  A collection of quotes is here.


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Renaissance harbor

Bruges was a busy international port, with canals like Venice.

From Venice to Cathay, from Seville to the Gold Coast of Africa, men anchored their ships and opened their ledgers and weighed one thing against another as if nothing would ever change.” And so begins the story of Niccolo–an amazingly winsome and brilliant young man, who starts as an apprentice in a Bruges dye shop but who rises to great things during the story, a wonderful adventure that runs to 8 books, set in the burgeoning splendor of the Renaissance, and taking us from Flanders to Florence to Trebizond and ever onward, with complicated plots and erudite references–not to mention, silks and spices and Medici bankers and fabulous Naxos princesses.

A group of young Flemish men

A group of young Flemish men

Niccolo Rising (Book 1) starts as Claes (his boyhood name) and two other young men are hitchhiking on a barge from Sluys to Bruges, helping the bargemen with their cargo: a giant cast iron bath tub for the duke of Burgundy.  Entertainment ensues, with, as always in these books, an edge, and unforeseen results. One of which is a punishing beating for Claes–he gets a lot of those–and a night in the Steen (the insalubrious prison of Bruges). More terrible punishments await him in the pages and books to come, from which he miraculously emerges relatively unharmed–usually, thanks to the women who love him. Of which, there are many. He is a charming youth! With dimples.

The author builds her story on real events and real people,  weaving fictional characters and stories through them, and the action, however thrilling and exotic,  remains decorously within the constraints of actual history. Niccolo’s story is the story of the growing power of the 15th century merchant and banker princes, who made vast fortunes manipulating money and mercenary armies, and who traded in alum, in sugar, in silk–dealing with the Ottomans to do so. The confrontation between Europe and the Ottoman empire has a long history (famously including the crusades–Lionheart,  by Sharon Kay Penman, provides a detailed glimpse of the 3rd Crusade)  and it certainly complicated European trade in the Levant (which continues to be a trouble spot today, of course). Add the constantly warring Italian city states to the mix, and you have a truly labyrinthine political situation, which adroit Niccolo learns how to sail through, to his and his backers’ great profit.



In Spring of the Ram (Book 2), Niccolo takes his mercenary troop to  Trebizond, last bastion of Byzantine Empire–and very importantly, terminus of the silk road. The decadent court spends its time in elaborate games and gorgeous processionals.  “Pacing slowly between his confessors, was the Emperor. In the crook of his right arm the Imperial crosier lay like a lily. Over his left was wrapped a swath of the long elaborate pallium. Above the tunic, the dalmatica, the silken eagles woven in purple and gold. . a noble profile, calm and resolute beneath the tall stiffened gold of the mitra. From the rim of the crown, strings of light pearls fell to the jeweled yoke on his broad shoulders, and mixed with the loose curling gold of his hair and his beard. ”

emperorLovely images, but cruel and terrible events. David Comnenus sold his city to the Turks for the price of his own freedom, and was given a pleasant place in Constantinople. The people of Trebizond were not so lucky. However, he was killed along with his sons 3 years later by decree of the Sultan. This is the bare history of it, but Dorothy Dunnett’s telling of the tale is spell binding, magical.

The third book, Race of Scorpions,  takes us to Cyprus, and the war between Queen Carlotta and her brother James for the throne of the island–and, the cultivation of sugar cane, the precious stuff which grew in Cyprus and which furnished the wealth that paid for the war between the two Lusignans.

Historical fiction as she is MEANT to be writ–voluminous, exciting, complicated! And, how good to know that so much lies yet in store–5 more books!

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Cathie’s mention of Peter the Great put me in mind of the Lymond series, by Dorothy Dunnett–and I was amazed to hear that none of the ladies had read these grand books! Lymond–the astonishingly beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, learned, musical, agile and muscular hero of the book, who also speaks many languages and has an excellent understanding of mathematics– oh my! Just read what Wikipedia says. A total DREAMBOAT! AND, he travels all over the mid-16th century world, meeting actual historical figures and taking part in actual historical events. Really engrossing series of books. Upon doing a little research however, I find that the Tzar Lymond had to deal with was the dire Ivan the Terrible, not the enlightened Peter. The scenes in Russia were stunning–barbaric fortresses in snowy wildernesses. But, all the scenes were stunning. I read the series in my youth, and then returned to it upon finding it as a recorded book. The hours I spent, entranced, listening to this gorgeous story! I still remember the terrible let down, as I was walking up from the subway to Friendship Heights, and hearing those grim words, “The End”. Sigh.

The Guilty Pleasure books I mentioned to Rebecca are a series called the Parasol Protectorate, by Gail Carriger. These books, I blush to report, feature Werewolves and Vampires in Victorian London, with a generous serving of steam punk on the side. Our heroine, Alexia Terrabotti, in addition to her abiding interest in proper dress and behavior, has a passion for tea (Assam) and treacle tarts.  Shamefully, I have downloaded ALL of these silly books, and am now listening to the 5th one. Comic book stories, silly affected language (on purpose),  extravagant Victorian costumes and foods, and a certain amount of bodice ripping. What’s not to like, as they say.

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