What makes a long book -- a really long book -- worth the time and effort of reading it?
With the publication of Gemini, the eighth and final volume in her sweeping House of Niccolò series, Dorothy Dunnett brings to a close the intricate and vastly entertaining adventures of her Renaissance hero, Nicholas de Fleury. Each book in this series, like those in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, may be read with pleasure as a freestanding tale, but the greatest satisfaction lies in following Nicholas from the first volume to the last, from his youth in mid-15th-century Flanders to his culminating exploits in Scotland some 25 years later. Along the way, we discover not only the portrait of a charming, romantic, and compelling protagonist, but the portrait of a complex age: the modern world in the making.
When we meet Nicholas in the first book of the series, Niccolò Rising, he is merely Claes vander Poele, a clever, illegitimate dye-shop apprentice of 18, whose rapid rise in the world carries him from the role of laborer to trader, to banker, to spy, and through half the courts and trading cities of Europe. Book by book, driven by the challenges of his time as well as by the secrets embedded in his own mysterious past, he visits Trebizond, last outpost of the dying Byzantine empire; wages mercenary war on the embattled Aegean island of Cyprus; hunts for gold in the hidden North African kingdom of Timbuktu; and matches plot and counterplot with the scheming, artful powers of Florence, Venice, and Burgundy, Poland, Persia, and Russia.
Travels of this sort, peopled with dozens of brilliantly sketched secondary characters (many of them drawn from the historical record) and layered with labyrinthine subplots, are the typical stuff of which all good historical novels are made. But Dunnett brings to her enterprise a formidable set of additional skills and concerns. A flexible and highly literate writer, she displays a happy facility for the fresh simile ("The friar smiled. It was like a rat diving into a hedge"; "The oysters...were the finest Nicholas had ever seen: the sensitive shells, thin as a porcelain roseleaf, slowly closed as he watched"), the unhackneyed pun ("Bestow a little thought on what must be arranged for these [mystery] plays. For the Multiplication des Pains, six dozen loaves from some baker"), and the nuanced, lapidary turn of phrase ("I want the teachers sprung of your line to help instruct the poor fools sprung of mine"). She invests Nicholas and his world with a commanding realism and grounds his myriad adventures in meticulous research of astonishing depth and range. Nicholas's story is told with delightful wit and lyrical richness; Dunnett draws upon Renaissance art, science, and literature not merely as tools of her narrative but with real insight, creating a fully persuasive account of an age on the cusp of dramatic change.
At the heart of this world is the mysterious Nicholas himself: enigmatic, skilled at mathematics and codes, passionate, clever, and secretive; talented at constructing complex games and puzzles; dangerous and alluring to friends and enemies alike. Who is this Nicholas who changes his name and nationality as occasion warrants? What is his relationship to the powerful St. Pol family of France and Scotland? As he meets and overcomes challenges, confronts defeats, and acquires new talents, volume by volume, Dunnett gradually exposes the layers of a personality as intriguing, difficult, and multifaceted as that of another clever, widely traveled, problematic hero, Odysseus. Like Odysseus, Nicholas is not only a skilled soldier but also a master craftsman, a maker of delicate toys, a trickster and joker; he is Harlequin in tattered clothes; like Harlequin, he wears masks. Dunnett, a clever craftsman like her hero, plays intricate games with the reader of narrative within narrative, mystery within mystery.
Indeed, among the many pleasures of the Niccolò books is that though they may be read purely as highly enjoyable, fast-paced, swashbuckling individual stories, the reader who wants something more will discover in them a deeply serious exploration of character and narrative form that draws upon the full body of western literature, from the Norse and Greek myths and epics to the medieval Christian mystery plays and courtly romances. Dunnett knows how to use classical allusion with a light touch; her echoes of mythic themes are never intrusive, but are woven into her narrative with exquisite grace and fluidity, just as the eight books together comprise a well-knit, unified tale.
Here is a passage from the third volume, Race of Scorpions. The year is 1463. Nicholas, age 23, is on the island of Cyprus, birthplace of Aphrodite, conspiring in the warm air of a summer evening against -- or perhaps with -- the powerful Venetian nobles who control it, watched by the visiting Flemish lady Katelina van Borselen, who may either love or hate him. One of the Venetians, Jacopo Zorzi, speaks:
"Will you allow me to arrange a meeting --"
"With me?" said the voice of Nicholas behind him. Zorzi, half risen, stood and turned. Katelina subsided. A moth, substantial as brown rotted fruit, advanced through dying smoke and opened and closed its wings on the table. Nicholas, his doublet caught on one shoulder, was a blur of white, below shadowy features. He said, "Young as I am, and greedy for women? If she wants to exchange her services for her murdering nephew, she should come back to Kouklia tomorrow. Today and tonight, I am suited." She saw the heaviness of his eyes, turned towards her, and heard the one clumsy word in that speech. He said, "Did he persuade you to escape?"
"No," she said. The moth shifted, and she stood up quickly. . . .
Nicholas said, "Do you know who he is?"
"She knows," said the Venetian patiently. He had recovered himself.
"She knows," Nicholas said, "that Bartolomeo of the dyeworks is your brother. She doesn't associate you as yet with your other brother. Nicholai Giorgio de' Acciajuoli, who once shared your journey from Scotland, demoiselle, and whose good advice sent me to Trebizond."
...She remembered. She remembered the crazy, joyous apprentice whose name was not yet Nicholas. She remembered a tall, elegant Greek of Florentine descent whose affairs she had always known, vaguely, to be involved with the Charetty company; with its great new ventures; with the marriage, even, of Nicholas and Marian, his employer and wife. She said, "Do you mean to destroy his brothers as well?"
The thing on the table moved. Following her eyes, Nicholas picked up a napkin and, leaning forward, placed it over the live moth and pressed on it. He said, "I don't destroy everyone who hurts me. You know that better than most. I don't even know whether the Zorzi wish me well or the opposite." He lifted his hand, leaving the crumpled cloth on the table. Nothing moved. He said, "What do you think?" to the Venetian.
"I think it's dead," said Jacopo Zorzi, "whether it harmed you or not."
In this passage, it is perhaps useful to know -- although the reader will not discover it for many pages yet -- that Katelina has a deadly fear of insects. The act of casual cruelty and menace with which Nicholas warns his interlocutors is thus also an act of subtle, observant kindness toward one of them, of which the other is unaware. It is perhaps also useful to remember here that in Greek myth the moth is a symbol of Psyche, the soul, who falls in love with the god Adonis and is transformed.
Transformation and reversal are repeated themes in the Niccolò stories. Dunnett's picaresque tale of a young man rising by his wits in a changing world of international commerce, shifting national borders, and new political and social structures also resonates with powerful, archetypal themes of personal identity, parental and sexual love, and political loyalty.
The core question is that of Nicholas's own identity. With his parentage and his name in doubt, he must forge a place for himself in a Europe that stands uncertainly between the old medieval, feudal and religious order and the nascent secular order of independent, quarrelsome nation-states. He must find for himself the country and family to which he belongs -- or else make them. Talented in trade and commerce, skilled at warfare and the policies of courts, and uniquely perceptive about human nature, Nicholas's private mottos are "Put yourself in the other man's place" and "Change, change and adapt." His flexible world view echoes that of Europe in the flux of the early Renaissance and provides the key to the extraordinary financial and intellectual virility of both; it offers him many advantages over his adversaries, but also reveals some desperate flaws: For Nicholas is a man who may lack a fundamental moral grounding in the world, just as he lacks a homeland and a name of his own. His quest for riches, love, nationality, and family are ultimately a quest for a sense of self.
At the onset of Gemini, he is no longer lowly Claes vander Poele, but Nicholas de Fleury, erstwhile Baron of Beltrees, struggling for happiness in marriage; with children, friends, mentors, rivals, and enemies known and secret; possessor of houses, goals, and a scarred record of mixed crimes and achievements. Here Nicholas returns to Scotland, the theater of former violent confrontations with the St. Pol family and his own wife, to settle once and for all his claims to belong to both. In this last, elegiac, and valedictory tale, Dunnett portrays with affectionate precision a country "north of the real world," far from the political and cultural hubs of Europe and struggling to civilize itself. She masterfully populates her young nation with tradesmen and courtiers, counselors and nobles, and one of the most spectacularly dysfunctional royal families short of Britain's current clan. Here Nicholas the merchant finds himself embroiled in the petty conflicts of an immature court. A seasoned politician as well as a businessman, adept at playing both sides of any dispute or battle, Nicholas finally finds that he must choose his loyalties and his place in the world, and pay the price of his commitments.
What makes a long book -- a really long book -- a particular sort of pleasure? In the House of Niccolò series, author and reader have the luxury of exploring themes great and small in depth (the recurrent metaphors of rivers, blindness, wheels, and twins, for example) within the framework of an exciting, often riotously funny set of adventure novels. Just as Dunnett has been compared to Patrick O'Brian for her command of period detail and historical fact, so too has she been compared to Charles Dickens for her panoply of vivid secondary characters and for the passionate intensity with which her avid readers follow the fate of her hero, from the starlit wastes of the Sahara to the icebound volcanoes of Iceland, and from the arms of lovers to the arms of his true love. Yet perhaps it is most appropriate to cite two other authors of very long books here: Anthony Powell and Marcel Proust, the former for A Dance to the Music of Time, his witty, leisurely 12-volume portrait of an age in flux and at odds with itself; the latter for his elaborate, extended, impressionistic fabric of interwoven ideas and personalities, evocative prose, and deeply felt passions. The simple genre of romantic historical fiction has garnered little respect in the world of literary fiction and may make such elevated comparisons ring a bit awkwardly in the ear. Yet Tolstoy, too, once wrote a sprawling historical romance whose underlying structure proved to be fiercely intellectually rigorous. Dunnett's panoramic scope and occasional infelicities of plotting and character motivation may diminish her power for some readers, who will perhaps place her not on Olympus with Tolstoy and Proust, but rather in the solid, earthbound company of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas. Let those readers be satisfied with a dazzling romantic tale told in limpid, prismatic prose.