A Race of Scorpions – Dorothy Dunnett

Race of ScorpionsPeople who are devoted Dorothy Dunnett readers generally fall into two camps: the Lymond Lovers (her first series) and the Niccolo folk. I’m in the second camp. I like Lymond, but I love the House of Niccolo series.

The thing is, I can’t pick up any of the Niccolo books without wanting to read the whole series again. And given the complexity and demanding nature of these novels, that’s like saying you’re just rarin’ to swim the Atlantic one more time.

So here I am, in the middle of re-reading the series agian. I’m on the third volume, A Race of Scorpions, and almost finished with it. This must be my seventh or eighth reading, and things don’t get any easier, I have to say. Is this a streak of masochism in me? Or is there some other reason I go back and read these books again and again?

Clearly, the story has me hooked. More clear still is the fact that I just don’t understand some of what goes on in this novel, and every time I read it I am determined to figure it out. This third novel is set primarily on the island of Cyprus, in a time when Christian and Muslem powers were locked in one bloody war after another: for souls, for trade monopolies, for land.

Niccolo is one of those extremely intelligent, extremely devious, utterly charming characters. He has reason to be devious and he certainly has reason to hold a grudge, and in fact he is a formidable foe. But Dunnett is so dedicated to keeping the reader guessing that she rarely lets us inside Niccolo’s head, and so we readers are likely to end up as confused as some of the characters who find themselves in the middle of Niccolo’s macchinations. The first two novels in the series are demanding, but this one takes it up a couple notches. Who is scheming against which King or Queen, Greeks and Mamlukes, Portugese and Knights of the Order, the Pope, the Sultan, the Genoese and the Venetians — the next time somebody complains I’ve got too many characters, I’m going to hand them Dorothy Dunnett. Who is, according to the New York Times, the best writer of historical fiction, ever. Which reminds me: my publisher says that sales of historical novels are down across the board. Can that be true, given the following Dunnett has for these anything-but-fluff deeply written, very detailed novels?

Should you read this book? Do you like a really good historical novel wrapped in many layers of complexity? Are you willing to read the first two novels first, and to read slowly? If so, you will be rewarded. Otherwise, you’d be better off with less demanding fare.

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5 Replies to “A Race of Scorpions – Dorothy Dunnett”

  1. I have only read House of Nicolo three times but I am ready to start again. Can’t get the characters out of my mind. I also prefer it to Lymond chron. I found the history fascinating because I did not know the 15th cenntury was so full of changes. the many characters (the real ones) are complicated at first but I believe, the most important elements on which hangs the plot. Nicolo himself reaveals new aspects of his character with every book. Dunnett is addictive.

  2. Leila, it’s always good to come across a fellow addict. I keep thinking that sooner or later I’ll get tired of Niccolo, but I never do.

  3. I realize this is two years too late, but I don’t know anyone else who has reread the Niccolo series. I really enjoyed said series, but had a serious problem with the character of Gelis. I’m curious if you found her to improve on reread (as I found few characters to do just that with the Lymond series; namely, Marthe and Lymond himself).

  4. riemannia:

    A lot of people feel the way you do about Gelis. I was very uneasy too until I did a very close read (with notes!) of the time in Africa, and onward from that point.

    I think I understand Gelis pretty well. What she did was awful, but I see how she got there — and I think in the long run she pays the price. I also think that she and Niccolo are a once-in-a-millenium kind of pairing, and the way they interact — which is so painful for so long — is something that fascinates me.

    So I do keep rereading. I’m just finishing the second volume for maybe the twelfth time.

  5. Thanks for answering. I plan to reread the eight Niccolo books, but not for a while because Dunnett is all-absorbing and I want to write. I also want to get the companion books before I embark on that reread.

    I don’t know if I’ll get to like Gelis, but I’m hoping she can just make a bit more sense to me. And I’m afraid I imprinted on Katelina, for all her flaws.

    But I did like Nicholas!

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