Series: The “House of Niccolò” books by Dorothy Dunnett

A grand adventure story of a slightly unusual kind

October 2, 2010

The “House of Niccolò” series of books by Dorothy Dunnett is an eight volume series of historical novels, published between 1986 and 2000 and set mostly in western Europe between 1460 and 1483. Reviews of the individual volumes are at: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. (Caution: reviews of later volumes often contain spoilers for earlier ones.)

It is not my intention here to review in detail everything that goes on in all eight novels. But it does strike me that a few general words about the series as a whole might be useful or interesting. Inevitably some spoilers for the books will follow. I don’t intend to reveal anything that I would have minded knowing before reading the books, but different people will have different judgments on matters of that sort.

To begin with, I had read and enjoyed about half of the series before I realized just what it was I was reading: this is a grand adventure story written by a woman. Now of course there’s no reason that a woman can’t write exactly the same thing that a man would, or the other way around. But it’s my experience that in fiction pretty often they don’t. And I think that this is one of those cases. For example, I have read all or parts of various grand adventure stories written by men, such as Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Matruin novels (1, 2, 3), George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels (1), and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels (1, 2), and they all focus on battles and travel to distant places. Relationships and domestic life figure in those books but, to a large extent, they’re what happens between battles. In the “House of Niccolò” books, the emphasis is reversed. There are travels to distant places and a few battles in the books, but they’re all motivated by relationships between people. And the relationships are often complex: vexed, mysterious, changing, ill-founded, and any combination of those and a dozen other qualities. The relationships between characters in adventure stories written by men tend to be very straightforward.

Indeed, though there are some literal battles on literal battlefields in these books, the vast majority of the conflict comes from individuals pursuing long-term disputes. And the nature of those disputes often changes over time as the relationship between the parties changes. The drama of those disputes occasionally strays into melodrama, but that’s a small thing.

Also, people’s clothes and homes are described more often and in more detail than a male author would be likely to do.

The main character of the series, Nicholas, is something between a character and a plot device. He begins as a dyer’s apprentice in Bruges and, in the course of the books, takes on an astonishing number of roles. It would probably be fair to say that he takes on nearly every role that a man of his era could, with the exception of doctor, lawyer, and priest. (Those roles are filled by other members of the sometimes-varying ensemble of characters that work and travel with Nicholas.) With changing roles and relationships, people refer to Nicholas in different ways. If I were to re-read the books, I’d write down all the names that Nicholas is called. The figure is surely well over a dozen.

It’s not really a criticism that Nicholas sometimes feels a bit more like a plot device than a fully believable character with comprehensible motivations. I’ve said more than once in reviews of the individual books that Ms Dunnett’s plotting is so elegant that it sometimes seems that the history of early-Renaissance Europe was arranged for her convenience. Something has to get the story from one interesting place and time to another. And that’s generally Nicholas’s job.

Nicholas does change in the course of the story, but it’s not a very subtle change. He begins as a restless youth with prodigious abilities to plan and create. (Indeed, his long-term plans seem to work improbably well, but that’s another way that the plot is driven so it’s best to suspend disbelief.) As a youth he is unable to create anything that interests or satisfies him for long. As a result, he leaves some damage in his path. By the end of the story, having been under the influence of various good women and a few good men, he is able to settle for the long term and use his abilities to create something of lasting value. That’s certainly not a bad arc for a character to follow even if it’s not a very subtle one.

The places and times that the Nicholas takes us to are usually very interesting. We see a good deal of the Low Countries, France, various cities in what will later become Italy, and (perhaps not surprisingly given Ms Dunnett’s nationality) Scotland. The Renaissance in western Europe is a pretty interesting time, but we also get to see various places rather farther afield, sometimes at significant turning-points in their histories.

Beyond the places and times, Nicholas gets himself into any number of interesting (and often sticky) situations. Indeed, he may well hold the record among fictional characters for the number of time he gets knocked unconscious. Because no one would get into many of those situations voluntarily.

In addition, a great many of the characters we meet are interesting as well. And there are many of them. By the final book, the list of characters in the front of the book is twelve pages of pretty small type. The large majority of the characters are marked as “recorded in history”. We meet Medicis and Sforzas early on and some rather more remarkable people later on, on Nicholas’s farther-reaching travels. The women characters tend to be more subtle, especially in their motivations, than Nicholas or the other male characters. But then, given the era, they would have had to be.

If Nicholas is at least as much a plot-device as he is a character, everything else in the huge story works very remarkably well. And it’s hard for me to imagine anyone making this story work without something like Nicholas.

I’m looking forward to reading Ms Dunnet’s “Lymond Chronicles” series.