Book: Race of Scorpions by Dorothy Dunett

Splendid third book in a historical-novel series

Dorothy Dunnett
Race of Scorpions
Vintage, 1999 (originally published in 1989)
ISBN: 0-375-70479-5
534 pages

Race of Scorpions is the third book in the seven-book "House of Niccolò" series of historical novels by Dorothy Dunnett. They're set in the late fifteenth century and, so far, the story has taken us from Bruges to the Black Sea.

This is the third book in the series and no one would start reading the series here. Reviews of the previous books are at: 1, 2. I liked them both very much and this book does not disappoint. Significant spoilers for the earlier books follow.

As The Spring of the Ram ended, Nicholas vander Poele, formerly a dyer's apprentice and more recently a very canny trader and the agent for a small mercenary army, has had considerable commercial success in Trebizond. Which turned to ashes when he found that his wife, Marian, had died on a journey to meet him. As this book begins, he's on his way through snowy northern Italy to visit the place of Marian's death. While he's resting at an inn, an alarm is raised and Nicholas helps to rescue a queen whose party is being attacked nearby. As queens go, she's a relatively minor one. Carlotta is queen of Jerusalem, Cyprus, and Armenia. But she actually reigns over only part of the strategically-important island of Cyprus (divided even today). The rest of that island is ruled by her illegitimate half-brother, James.

Carlotta urges Nicholas (and his small army) to take her side in the dispute for the island. Nicholas declines. He eventually travels on to Bruges where he finds that his step-daughters (Marian's daughters from a previous marriage) are managing their late mother's business well and with able assistance, but want nothing to do with him. There, a courtesan of Carlotta's court finds Nicholas and tries to persuade him to come to Cyprus. Again he declines. A bit at loose ends, Nicholas joins his army for a couple of battles, but someone kidnaps him in the confusion of the battlefield and spirits him onto a boat headed for Cyprus. Someone does not want to take no for an answer.

If it sounds like I've just described a lot of the plot, I haven't. That omits much and takes us up to about page 70. Race of Scorpions is even more intricately plotted than the previous books. And there are characters scheming and plotting at every level. The result is intricate, fascinating, and a splendid read.

As seems to be usual with the books in this series, the female characters are more complex, especially in their motivations, than the male ones. But that's not important. And by now the reader will have learned to skip the introduction by Judith Wilt.

Posted: Wed - March 11, 2009 at 07:07 PM   Main   Category: