Dorothy Dunnett





Borzoi Books/Random House, July 2000
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Historical Fiction, 16th Century Europe

Genius entrepreneur Nicholas de Fleury returns to Scotland to repair the damage he has done, in this eighth and final book of Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series.

Even after both his blood feuds seem to be settled, the attacks on Nicholas and his family continue from an unexplained source. Why has the formidable Nicholas come so close to death so many times throughout his entire life? Why was he rejected so devastatingly by both his parents’ families? Who is Nicholas, really? Finally we learn all these things, as Dorothy Dunnett finishes off her complex tapestry of character and intrigue spanning twenty years of Nicholas’ development, from apprentice dyer to adviser of kings.

In the previous books of this series, Nicholas has carried his business enterprises almost everywhere Europeans could go in the late fifteenth century. GEMINI is the first book in which Nicholas settles into one country. Instead, we explore the enigmatic Nicholas himself. One by one his secrets come out to his family and friends, who have long suffered from inquisitiveness. Some of these secrets make the reader react in totally unexpected ways, as new light is shed on long-time associates. Skillfully building eight books’ worth of suspense to a peak, Dunnett concludes GEMINI in a shattering climax filled with the mixed triumphs and tragedies that any such climax would have in real life.

After reading GEMINI, I read a non-fiction overview of the period covered in this book. The author did an impressive job of weaving the stories of her characters into the events of the time. Historically accurate and humanly fleshed out, the court and council of King James III are far easier to keep track of in GEMINI, than they are in the public record of rebellions and changing coats agitating Scottish public life during this period of 1477 to 1483. Dunnett provides a back story in which responsible men are attempting, unseen, to steer their king and country into peaceful prosperity. Her characters’ motivations and undercover diplomatic maneuvers graft seamlessly onto what we can find in the limited records of the time. Her explanations of the turmoil in the royal family are especially convincing.

The author chose a good moment in history to end her story. Among the repeated upheavals that overtook Scotland in the years that followed, it would have been hard for a novelist to give anyone a satisfying ending – except, of course, the man who eventually became King James IV. Knowing Nicholas as well as we do by the end of GEMINI, it makes a fascinating game to figure out what he would have been doing during those years, and devise a way he could have emerged from the next two decades with both success and honor.

Dorothy Dunnett has an astonishing gift for the illuminating phrase. By choosing exactly the right word at the right time, she lets us see people and situations in brilliant clarity. Sometimes everything we need to know is included in one finely crafted sentence; but she also has a clever trick of sneaking up on the reader with a single fact, clarifying what seemed to be incidental information from a few pages before. This is an "aha!" experience if you have been paying attention, and it is sometimes very funny.

In another life, Dame Dunnett might have delighted in a career designing pinball machines. She relished writing scenes where her characters seem to interact in a chaos of ricochet. Gradually the patterns become clear, forming logical progressions that would have to be called mathematical if they weren't so rowdily energetic. In these scenes the reader experiences an atmosphere with all the laughter, excitement and pumping adrenaline of a roaring football crowd, followed at last by a satisfying understanding.

Each of the books in the House of Niccolo series has a synopsis, providing the necessary background for understanding the book as a stand-alone. What would be missing, if you started a book in the middle of the series, would be your involvement with the characters. I reread GEMINI with a "pretend" viewpoint of never having read anything in the series, and found that I was completely hooked after about 100 pages. That left almost 600 pages left to luxuriate in.

Dorothy Dunnett was a very intelligent author, who expected her readers to exercise their brains to keep up with her. I highly recommend you take up the Dunnett challenge, as her two historical fiction series The Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo prove she was one of the premier writing talents of the past few decades.

Oct 2000 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site
Mar 2004 Revised Review


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