Readers who discover Dorothy Dunnett's razor-sharp prose for the first time in "To Lie with Lions" will be delighted to find that they have more than 2,600 pages to savor in the five preceding volumes of the House of Niccolo saga, which began with "Niccolo Rising" (1986). This complex and entertaining story of pre-Renaissance Europe tells of Nicholas van der Poole, who transforms himself from dye-yard apprentice into savvy businessman, gentleman, and, finally, head of the Banco di Niccolo, a powerful institution competing with the bank of the de Medicis and the Vatachino. Dunnett's great gift is to combine fascinating period settings and genuine historical events with characters of wit, deep emotion, and strong desires. Throughout the saga, Nicholas has been warring with his natural father, Simon de Fleury, who refuses to acknowledge him. He is also in conflict with Gelis van Borselen, who betrayed and then married Nicholas ("Scales of Gold", 1991), blaming him for her sister Katelina's death. To these battles, Nicholas brings as weapons his formidable talents: intelligence, physical skill, and, most recently discovered, the power of divining for metals--or people. The preceding five books have concerned themselves with some critical fifteenth-century commodity: sugar, alum, silk, glass, slaves, and with this sixth volume, the children of the aristocracy. Both Nicholas' legitimate and illegitimate sons are used as pawns by his powerful enemies, and his struggle to protect them takes him on journeys through Scotland and the Loire and on a truly epic voyage to Iceland, among the geysers, volcanoes, and polar bears. New and old fans of Dunnett's fiction will be enthralled.
It is some measure of Dunnett's prodigious energy that the sixth volume in her ongoing series about the adventures of Nicholas de Fleury, a charismatic Renaissance-era rogue/merchant prince (The Unicorn Hunt, 1994, etc.) begins with a seven-page list of series characters.
And it's some indication of her considerable narrative talents that the complex schemes and obscure quests of her protagonist remain generally gripping through the course of a 600-page novel. Like earlier entrants in the series, this latest offers a dazzling portrait of Europe's courts and countinghouses in the 15th century. Set during the turbulent years 147173, the novel follows Nicholas as he extends the influence of his trading house, the Banco di Niccolò, deftly plays both sides in the war between King Louis of France and the Duke of Burgundy, and attempts to survive the efforts of the Vataddino, a shadowy rival trading empire, to destroy him. There's also a vividly rendered expedition to Iceland that includes a remarkable battle at sea and concludes with Nicholas's supposed death. Of course, he survives, once again confounding his enemies. At the heart of the story, though, is his battle of wits and wills with his estranged wife Gelis, the only person who can match his inspired schemes. Blaming him for the death of her sister, she has set out to humble him, even going so far as to work for the Vataddino. To best her, to avenge old wrongs, and out of sheer Machiavellian bravado, Nicholas sets in motion a plot that could destroy the Scottish throne, damage the Vataddino, and (he thinks) win Gelis back. But for once, even the King of Secrets (as he's called) cannot control the outcome.
Dunnett's pace is robust, her grasp of the Renaissance mind subtle and convincing. But the self-absorbed Nicholas is becoming, after 3,000-plus pages of text, a bit wearing. That isn't enough, though, to much tarnish the best modern series of historical fiction.
From the erudite Markson (Wittgenstein's Mistress, 1990, not reviewed; etc.): a terse, modernist novel implying that history is over, the arts finishedyet offering extended, Beckett- like pleasures.
"Reader" is the speaker here, and he speaks about "Protagonist." Plot and event? "Someone nodded hello to Reader on the street yesterday" pretty much takes care of the action side of things. More crucially, Reader declares that "I am growing older. I have been in hospitals," and asks, "Do I wish to put certain things down?" Indeed he does: and the remainder of the book consists of Reader's aphoristic recollections of a lifetime ofwell, reading. As these "memories" accumulate, Reader does have other questionswhether, as novelist, he should have "Protagonist" live on a beach or beside a cemetery (and if a cemetery, who is the woman Protagonist sees coming there each day to mourn?). Other questions include the familiar "What is a novel in any case?" Reader conjectures that he's creating "in some peculiar way. . . an autobiography," and asks whether it's "Nonlinear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?" (Answers: Yes, yes, and yes.) "Protagonist has come to this place because he had no life back there at all," explains Reader as he continues with his indefatigable, funny, often terribly wrenching tapestry of facts both known and obscure ("Vachel Lindsay committed suicide by drinking Lysol"), quotations homely and exotic ("O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!"), opinions of all literary sorts ("On the evidence, Shakespeare's small Latin was plainly more than that"), and assertions in a continuing refrain "Arnold Toynbee was an anti-Semite").
A novel, in all, for the ultra-readerly only, though in its own way often deeply melancholy, suggestive, and moving. "Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of social intent, Nabokov said" is followed by "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." Nabokov speaks for Markson's aesthetic aims, while Shakespeare synopsizes the personal wistfulness and deep sorrow permeating this remarkable book.