Gemini (House of Niccolò Series #8)

Gemini (House of Niccolò Series #8)

4.7 9
by Dorothy Dunnett

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Scotland, 1477: Nicholas de Fleury, former banker and merchant, has re-appeared in the land that, four years earlier, he had brought very close to ruin in the course of an intense commercial and personal war with secret enemies--and, indeed, with his clever wife Gelis.

Now the opportunity for redemption is at hand, but Nicholas soon finds himself pursuing his


Scotland, 1477: Nicholas de Fleury, former banker and merchant, has re-appeared in the land that, four years earlier, he had brought very close to ruin in the course of an intense commercial and personal war with secret enemies--and, indeed, with his clever wife Gelis.

Now the opportunity for redemption is at hand, but Nicholas soon finds himself pursuing his objectives amid a complex, corrosive power struggle centering on the Scottish royal family but closely involving the powerful merchants of Edinburgh, the gentry, the clergy, the English (ever seeking an excuse to pounce on their neighbor to the north), the French, the Burgundians. His presence soon draws Gelis and their son Jodi to Scotland, as well as Nicholas's companions and subordinates in many a past endeavor--Dr. Tobias and his wife Clémence, Mick Crackbene, John le Grant, and Andro Wodman among them. Here, too, Nicholas meets again with others who have had an influence, for good or evil, in his life: King James III of Scotland and his rebellious siblings; the St. Pols: Jordan, Simon, and young Henry; Mistress Bel of Cuthilgurdy and David de Salmeton; Anselm Adorne and Kathi his niece. Caught up in, and sometimes molding, the course of great events, Nicholas exhibits by turns the fierce silence with which he masks his secrets, and the explosive, willful gaiety that binds men, women, and children to him. And as the secrets of his birth and heritage come to light, Nicholas has to decide whether he desires to establish a future in Scotland for himself and his family, and a home for his descendants.

Gemini brings to a dazzling conclusion Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series (synopsized in this volume), in which this peerless novelist has vividly re-created the dramatic, flamboyant world of the early Renaissance in historical writing of scrupulous authenticity and in the entrancing portrait of her visionary hero. Now, in a book infused with wit and poetry, emotion and humor, action and mystery, she brings Nicholas de Fleury at last to choose his heart's home, where he can exercise all his skills as an advisor to kings and statesmen, as a husband, a father, and a leader of men--and where, perhaps, we will discern a connection between him and that other remarkable personality, Francis Crawford, whose exploits Lady Dunnett recorded so memorably in The Lymond Chronicles.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews
The House of Niccolò

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.

—Eve Harrington

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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House of Niccolò Series , #8
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Read an Excerpt

From Venice to Caffa, from Antwerp to the Gold Coast of Africa, merchants anchored their ships and unloaded their cannon and flipped open their ledgers as if in twenty years nothing had changed, and nothing was about to change now. As if old men did not die, or younger ones grow up, eventually. There was no fool in Europe, these days, who treated trade as a joke. All that sort were long sobered, or dead. Or were temporarily unavailable like Nicholas de Fleury, who had removed himself to the kingdom of Scotland, far to the
north of the real world of pretty women, and international intrigue, and the benefits of social and financial success.
     North of the real world, it was noticed quite soon that Nicholas the Burgundian was back. The first to suffer was the bailie of Berwick, who had a house of three floors and good eyesight, so that he personally observed this big Flemish ship plunging up from the south and bucking round into the mouth of the river. He held his breath until the manoeuvre was finished, for the Karel of Veere was the first merchantman to reach Scotland this season, and he had serious need of its news. When the harbour-bell clanged through the gale, Thomas Yare closed his shutters and sent a clerk pelting down to the wharf with an invitation to the Karel's seamaster. Then he had a word with his wife, and strode down through the garden to the red-painted warehouse, where his business room was.
     Thomas Yare, an active Scot of burnished acuity, wished to entertain Mick Crackbene of the Karel before anyone else. Thomas Yare was bailie and chamberlain of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the River Tweed was the frontier with England, which meant that one did not bellow sensitive news, even now, in times of miraculous peace. Tom Yare was a native of these parts but, until recently, had earned most of his living in Edinburgh. That was because, until recently, the English owned Berwick. Berwick had switched sides between England and Scotland thirteen times since it was founded. Half its footloose population were spies, and the other half smugglers.
     So Yare wanted the big Scandinavian's news for himself. He would get it. They had an understanding. Trade news was worth money. At whatever port they arrived, no matter how high the bribe, Crackbene's men never talked. Unless, of course, first primed by Crackbene. Crackbene or one of the merchants he carried. You never knew who that might be.
     There were two with Crackbene today. Pouring ale in his office, Tom Yare heard the footsteps and doubled the number of tankards. When the door thundered back on its hinges and the red-faced master marched in, Yare winced, waved the pitcher in welcome, and then set it down to go forward, hand outstretched.  Behind Crackbene was another robust figure of door-cracking capacity: Andro Wodman, the Scots-Flemish consul with his blue jowl and fighting-man's shoulders and twice-broken nose, all of which Yare duly greeted. And behind Wodman approached another of the same breed, heaven help us: so big his furzy brown head and soaked hat barely got past the lintel.
     Tom Yare dropped his welcoming hand and also released, very slightly, his business gentleman's smooth-polished jaw as he set eyes on a man he hadn't seen for four years.
     Nicholas de Fleury of Bruges. Ser Nicholas, do you mind: former banker, former dyemaster, former owner of armies, stepping over nice as a hen and unpeeling a soaked sailing-cloak to stand gazing down (Tom Yare straightened) with that bloody disarming smile and two dimples. They knew one another. The Burgundian had once made the bailie a very fine profit in cod.
     The first emotion felt by Tom Yare, and most others, upon meeting Nicol de Fleury, was an urge to be friendly. The next, based on experience, was a heady mixture of horror and glee.
     De Fleury said, 'Are you going to be sick?'
     Tom Yare, his face warming, recovered. 'Damn you. Why didn't you warn me?'
     'I wish I had,' said de Fleury. 'You might have managed something better than ale. Ale? Business bad, Tom? Wish you had firm news from somewhere?' It brought back immediately all that fascinated Yare about Nicol de Fleury, and all that he distrusted as well.
     'Mick prefers ale,' the Conservator observed, shaking wet from his bonnet.  
     'Nobody knew you were coming, Nicholas, with your luxurious Persian tastes. How are you, Tom?'
     'Dumbfoun'ered,' said Yare with unusual honesty. He opened the door, called an order, and shut it swiftly again. 'Have ye spoken to anyone yet?'
Crackbene's evil smile broadened. The consul, Wodman, said, 'What about?'
De Fleury sat down on a coffer, which groaned. 'Can't you guess? He wants to know if the siege of Nancy is over. It is.'
     'That's old news,' Wodman said cheerfully. 'He's bound to know that.'
     Tom Yare didn't waste time being exasperated. He said, 'There hasn't been a ship from the south since Epiphany. You're the first.'
     'It's a good ship, the Karel,' said the Scandinavian shipmaster proudly. It was purgatory.
     'But you must have had dispatches by road,' Wodman said. 'Wardens' runners. Envoys. Lawyers on business. Wenches with well-informed clients. After all, that's England, over the river.'
     'I remember,' said Yare. Men behaved like this, safely landed from sea. Nicol de Fleury behaved like this far too often. Tom Yare was a solid, fit man, but lodged between de Fleury and Crackbene he felt small and thumbed, like a rosary bead. He continued in his soft, deliberate voice, defying the burr in his speech that Margaret always said she found sweet. 'The roads [rhodes] have been closed, and the place is jumping with rumours. Wheat prices are surging already. The word [wuhd] is that there was a disaster at Nancy, and the richest prince in the West is a corpse, with an unmarried lass as his heiress. True [tehoo] or not?'
     Someone tapped on the door. Wine came in, and was poured. No one spoke. When the door closed: 'The Duke of Burgundy is officially dead,' de Fleury said, saluting the ceiling and drinking. 'I was there. That isn't a bad little Osey.'
     'Tell me,' said Tom Yare. Then he listened to what he was given: the unemotional account of a disaster.
     The Grand Prince of the West had been discovered dumped dead in a ditch after a mindless battle with Swiss and Lorrainers. The news had taken a long time to spread. Before de Fleury left Flanders, he had had an audience with the widowed Dowager Duchess, and discussed the future with men of commitment like Gruuthuse, Hugonet and Adorne. For, of course, France would try to reclaim her borders, and the heiress would marry someone who might not suit Flanders at all. So there were implications.
     They discussed them. Wodman contributed: he had once been a soldier in France. By the end, Yare had grasped that de Fleury had actually taken part in the fight and been wounded. Most of his companions were dead. Some were captives about to be ransomed, among them two Scots: the gunner John, and that decent young merchant, Robin of Berecrofts, who had also been injured.
     Yare said, 'Was Robin hurt bad?' It was the business-man in him that spoke. The noble Anselm Adorne of Bruges bought and sold through his kindred in Scotland, and Robin had wed Adorne's niece. A trading empire was involved.
     De Fleury said, 'I don't know. He was shot. It looked serious enough at the time.'
     Yare said, 'You'll want to tell his eme and his father in Edinburgh. What else have ye in mind while you're there?'
     He was entitled to know. Four years ago, without explanation, the Burgundian had closed all his ventures in Scotland and gone, abandoning the stripling Court which had befriended him. Now he was back, with a trading-ship which belonged to his wife. All the years de Fleury was absent, his wife Gelis had successfully run a good business, as you would expect of a van Borselen of Veere. She had an eight-year-old son by her husband. Tom Yare's own sharp-witted wife admired her acumen, but not what she had heard of her casual marriage. Yare thought de Fleury (in this respect only) a fool. Yare also admired Gelis van Borselen, who was still at home in Bruges and, it seemed, abandoned again. He had met other husbands like this. Men who could sail, but not navigate.
     De Fleury hadn't mentioned his wife, except in the context of business. Nor did he now. He said, 'I thought I'd see what was happening. I suppose I'd better report what I've told you. Then I'll probably pick up a cargo and leave.'
     Yare said, 'They'll want you to stay.'
     'They?' said de Fleury.
     'The King. The Council. The merchants. It depends whom you plan to see first.' He let a pause develop unhindered.
     De Fleury said, 'Perhaps I should ask your advice about that. As you said, it is sensitive news, and incautious handling could cause damage.'
     Yare said, 'What have you heard?'
     Wodman glanced at his fellow passenger, but said nothing. De Fleury said, 'Only what reached Bruges before the end of the year. The King's brothers and sisters are young, and occasionally wilful. Sometimes merchants and even envoys find it better to speak first to the older men of the Council, who can then choose the right time to debate the issue with King James or his brothers. But I may have heard wrongly.'
     'No,' said Yare. He was aware that he had been spared an explanation he would not have wanted to give. He was bailie of Berwick, but he was also one of the small circle -- Scheves, the Prestons, the Sinclairs -- who supplied personal service to the royal household; whose ships brought in baby night coats and wine-barrels and salmon, while some of their houses in Edinburgh were grand enough to lodge envoys. He heard a lot of personal gossip and, of course, used it. But he was careful to whom he imparted it.
     Now he said, 'What you heard is true. It is a young Court, as you say. The Duke of Burgundy's death raises complex issues that the King's advisers will want to consider.'
     'So that perhaps I should see them initially,' de Fleury said. 'But if the King summons me first, there is not much I can do.'
     'No,' said Yare. 'Once he knows that you've landed, that is. But you could be sorely held up. It's a bad beat sometimes, north, in this wind.'
     'And Mick Crackbene, as we all know, can't set a course. Yes, that's true,' de Fleury said, lifting a brow at his shipmaster.
     'If you say so,' the big fair man said blandly. And to Yare: 'I didn't tell you. We've brought your tombstones. Lovely, they are. One for you, one for your lady. Come and see when we get them ashore.'
     He promised. As the talk turned to more everyday channels, it occurred to Tom Yare that there was a piece of gossip he should give to Nicol de Fleury. Something heard by Yare's brother the friar, who lived near the Priory that taught the King's youngest sister in Haddington. He would tell de Fleury, in private.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Dorothy Dunnett, who lives in Edinburgh, is the author of many novels. In 1992, Queen Elizabeth appointed her an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Gemini 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
nancy133 More than 1 year ago
I have loved this whole series - this is my second time to read the whole series. Claes?Niccolo is one of my favorite characters. If you love history - this makes a fun way to learn about that time period.
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RushBabe More than 1 year ago
Through the entire series House of Niccolo, the reader eagerly follows the main character and his friends and family in their travels and adventures throughout Renaissance Europe and Africa. No historical fiction I've ever read (in all my 60 years) can compare with the story of the dyers' apprentice. The best part is the real historical figures, and learning about real world history-it's almost like being there. When I finished all eight books, I was bereft-what will I read now?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago