The House of Niccolo (Dorothy Dunnett) - Vintage Books - 1986-2000 (Eight Volumes)

This series of historical novels by Dorothy Dunnett (1923-2001) deserves a more extensive outline than I usually provide.  Ms. Dunnett has merged fictional characters with actual people and events of the 15th century, primarily in Europe.  These eight volumes represent an immense accomplishment in conjunction with her other works that include Lymond Chronicles (1961-1975 - six volumes), The Johnson Johnson mystery series (1968-1991 - seven volumes) and several other books and short stories.  The following summaries were written by Judith Wilt.  [JAM 8/11/2014]

Niccolo Rising - Volume I

" 'From Venice to Cathay, from Seville to the Gold Coast of Africa, men anchored their ships and opened their ledgers and weighed one thing against another as if nothing would ever change.'  The first sentence of the first volume indicates the scope of this series, and the cultural and psychological dynamic of the story and its hero, whose private motto is 'Change, change and adapt'.  It is the motto, too, of fifteen-century Bruges, centre of commerce and conduit of new ideas and technologies between the Islamic East and the Christian West, between the Latin South and the Celtic-Saxon North, haven of political refugees from the English Wars of the Roses, a site of muted conflict between trading giants Venice and Genoa and states in making and on the take all around.  Lady Dunnett has set her story in the fifteenth century, between Gutenberg and Columbus, between Donatello and Martin Luther, between the rise of mercantile culture and the fall of chivalry, as the age of receptivity to -- addiction to -- change called 'the Renaissance' gathers its powers.  Her hero is a deceptively silly-looking, disastrously tactless eighteen-year-old dyeworks artisan named 'Claes', a caterpillar who emerges by the end of the novel as the merchant mathematician Nicholas vander Poele.  Prodigiously gifted at numbers, and the material and social 'engineering' skills that go with it, Nicholas has until now resisted the responsibility of his powers, his identity fractured by the enmity of both his mother's husband's family, the Scottish St Pols, who refuse to own him legitimate, and his maternal family, the Burgundian de Fleurys, who failed his mother and abused him and reduced him to serfdom as a child.  He found refuge at age ten with his grandfather's in-laws, especially the Bruges widow Marian de Charetty, whose dyeing and broking business becomes the tool of Nicholas's desperate self-fashioning apart from the malice of his blood relatives.  Soon even public Bruges and the states beyond come to see the engineer within the artisan.  The Charetty business expands to include a courier and intelligence service between Italian and Northern states, its bodyguard sharpened into a skilled mercenary force, its pawnbroking consolidated towards banking and commodities trading.  And as the chameleon artificer of all this, Nicholas incurs the ambiguous interest of the Bruges patrician Anselm Adorne and the Greco-Florentine prince Nicholai Giorgio de' Acciajuoli, both of whom steer him towards a role in the rivalry between Venice, in whose interest Acciajuoli labours, and Genoa, original home of the Adorne family.  This trading rivalry will erupt in different novels around different, always highly symbolic commodities: silk, sugar, glass, gold, and human beings.  In this first novel the contested product is alum, the mineral that binds dyes to cloth, blood to the body, conspirators to a conspiracy -- in this case, to keep secret the news of a recently found deposit of the mineral in the Papal States while Venice and her allies monopolise the current supply.  Acciajuoli and Adorne are father-mentor figures Nicholas can respect, resist, or join on roughly equal intellectual terms -- whereas the powerful elder males of his blood, his mother's uncle, Jaak de Fleury, and his father's father, Jordan de Riberac, steadily rip open wounds first inflicted in childhood.  In direct conflict he is emotionally helpless before them.  What he possesses superbly, however, are the indirect defences of an 'engineer'.  The Charetty business partners and others who hitch their wagons to his star -- Astorre the mercenary leader, Julius the notary, Gregorio the lawyer, Tobias Benventini the physician, the Guinea slave Lopez -- watch as a complex series of commodity and currency manoeuvres by the apparently innocent Nicholas brings about the financial and political ruin of de Fleury and de Riberac; and they nearly desert him for the conscienceless avenger he appears to be, especially after de Fleury dies in a fight with, though not directly at the hands of, his nephew.  The faith and love of Marian de Charetty make them rethink their view of this complicated personality.  Marian, whose son was killed beside Nicholas in the Italian wars, and whose sister married into his family, is moved towards the end of the novel to suggest that Nicholas take her in marriage,  It is to be platonic: her way of giving him standing, of displaying her trust in him and his management of the business, and of solacing him in his anguish.  Once married, however, she longs despite herself for physical love, and Nicholas, who owes her everything, finds happiness also in making the marriage complete.  That marriage, however, sows the seed of tragedy.  The royally connected Katelina van Borselen, 'characterful', intelligent, and hungry for experiences usually denied a genteel lady, has refused the vicious or vacuous suitors considered eligible, and seeks sexual initiation at the hands of the merry young artisan so popular with the kitchen wenches of Bruges.  Against his better judgement, Nicholas is led to comply, for, however brusque her demands, she has just saved his life in one of the several episodes in which the St Pols try to destroy him.  Two nights of genuine intimacy undermined by mismatched desires and miscommunicated intentions culminate in Katelina's solitary pregnancy.  Unaware of this, Nicholas enters his marriage with Marian, and Katelina, alone, fatalistically marries the man in pursuit of her, the handsome, shrewd, and fatally self-centered Simon de St Pol, the man, Nicholas claims is his father.  Sickened at what she believes is Nicholas's ultimate revenge on his family -- to illegitimately father its heir -- Katelina becomes Nicholas's most determined enemy."

The Spring of the Ram - Volume II

"Simon de St Pol, the overshadowed son of Jordan de Riberac, husband of the bitter Katelina, father of the secretly illegitimate Henry, has clearly had his spirit poisoned long since by the powerful and malignant de Riberac, and is as much pitied as loathed by Nicholas vander Poele, who sees in Simon something of his own deracinated brilliance.  Looking to find a sphere of activity where Simon and Nicholas can no longer injure each other, Marian de Charetty, now the wife of Nicholas, persuades her husband to take up an exciting and dangerous project: to trade in Trebizond, last outpost of the ancient empire of Byzantium.  It is less than a decade since Sultan Mehmet took Constantinople, and several forces of Islam -- Mehmet's Ottomans, Uzum Hasan's Turcomans, Kushcadam's Egyptian Mamelukes -- ring the Christian outpost while delegates from the Greek Orthodox East , led by the very earthy and autocratic Franciscan friar Ludovico de Severi da Bologna, scour the Latin West for money and troops to mount still another Crusade.  With Medici backing and Church approval, Nicholas sets out for Trebizond to trade as Florentine consul, bringing his skilled mercenaries as a show of support from the West -- a show that will soon turn real as the Sultan moves against the city more quickly than anyone had anticipated.  Nicholas's rival, and in some ways alter ego, is the gifted, charming, and amoral Pagano Doria, trading for Genoa, gaming with Venice's Nicholas in a series of brilliant pranks and tricks which include, terribly, the seduction of the thirteen-year-old Catherine de Charetty, one of Nicholas's two rebellious step-daughters.  Pagano, who is secretly financed by Nicholas's enemy Simon de St Pol, has invited the adolescent Catherine to challenge her stepfather, and no pleas or arguments from Nicholas, her mother's officers, or the new figures joining the company -- the priest Godscalc and the engineer John le Grant -- can sway her.  In Trebizond, Nicholas deploys his trading skills while he assesses Byzantine culture, once spiritually and politically supreme, now calcified in routine, crumbling in self-indulgence.  Nicholas must resist the Emperor David's languidly amorous overtures while he takes the lead in preparing the city for, and then withstanding, the siege of the Sultan.  The city, however, is betrayed by its Emperor and his scheming Chancellor, and Pagano Doria suffers his own fall, killed by a black page whom he carelessly loved and then sold to the Sultan.  Nicholas has willed neither fall, yet has set in motion some of the psychopolitical 'engineering' which has triggered these disasters, and he carries, with Father Godscalc's reflective help and the more robust assistance of Tobie and le Grant, part of the moral burden of them.  The burden weighs even during the triumphant trip back to Venice with a rescued if still recalcitrant Catherine and a fortune in silk, gold, alum, and Eastern manuscripts, the 'golden fleece' which this Jason looks to lay at the feet of his beloved wife.  A final skirmish with Simon, angry at the failure of his agent Doria, ends the novel abruptly, with news which destroys all the remaining dream of homecoming: Marian de Charetty, traveling through Burgundy in her husband's abscence, has died."

Race of Scorpions - Volume III

"Rich and courted, yet emotionally drained and subconsciously enraged, Nicholas seeks a new shape for his life after visiting his wife's grave, establishing his still-resentful step-daughters in business themselves, and allowing his associates to form the Trading Company and Bank of Niccolo in Venice.  Determined to avoid the long arm of Venetian policy, attracted to the military life not precisely for its sanction of killing but for the 'sensation of living through danger' it offers, Nicholas returns from Bruges to the war over Naples in which he had, years before, lost Marian's son Felix and contracted a marsh-fever which revisits him in moments of stress.  When he is kidnapped in mid-battle, he at first suppresses it to be by order of his enemies, Simon and Katelina; but in fact it is Venice which wants him and his mercantile and military skills in another theatre of war, Cyprus.  The brilliant and charismatic but erratic James de Lusignan and his Egyptian Mameluke allies have taken two-thirds of the sugar-rich island of Cyprus from his legitimate Lusignan sister, the clever and energetic Carlotta, and her allies, the Christian Knights of St John and the Genoese, who hold the great commercial port of Famagusta.  Sensing that, of the two Lusignan 'scorpions', James holds the winning edge, Nicholas agrees to enter his service.  He intends to design the game this time, not be its pawn, but he doesn't reckon with the enmity of Katelina, who comes to Rhodes to warn Carlotta against him, or the sudden presence of Simon's Portuguese brother-in-law Tristao Vasquez and Vasquez's naive sixteen-year-old son Diniz, all three of whom do become pawns.  Nicholas is now the lover of Carlotta's courtesan, the beautiful Primaflora, whose games he also thinks he can control, and he recognizes a crisis of countermanipulations brewing between Katelina and Primaflora.  Only at the end of the novel, after Katelina's love/hate for Nicholas has been manipulated to bring Tristao to his death and Diniz to captivity under James, after Nicholas and Katelina rediscover intimacy and establish the truth of their relationship, after a brilliant and deadly campaign waged by Nicholas for James has brought him to ulyimate tragedy -- the siege of Famagusta which he planned and executed has resulted, without his knowledge, in the death of Katelina and the near-death of Diniz, trapped in the starving city -- only at the end does Nicholas fully admit even to himself that much of this has been planned or sanctioned by Primaflora, intent on securing her own future.  In the end, too, the determinedly rational Nicholas gives vent to his rage.  Punishment for the pain of the complex desires and denials in his private and public history cannot be visited upon the complex and only half-guilty figures of his family or his trading and political rivals and clients.  But in this novel, for the first time, he finds a person he can gladly kill, the unspeakably cruel Mameluke Emir Tzani-bey al-Ablak, whom he fatally mutilates in single combat while James, unknown to him, has the Emir's four-hundred-man army massacred in a pre-emptive strike carrying all the glory and damnation of Renaissance kingship.  Like Pagano Doria, like Nicholas himself, Primaflora is a 'modern' type, a talented and alienated 'self-made' person.  Unlike the other two, Nicholas has the memory of family in which to ground a wary, half-reluctant, but genuine adult existence in the community.  At the same time, however, he avoids close relationships: he has established the Bank of Niccolo as a company, not a family.  But, resisting and insisting, the members of the company forge bonds of varying intimacy with Nicholas, especially the priest Godscalc and the physician Tobie, who alone at this point know the secret of Katelina's baby and carry the dying woman's affirmation of Nicholas's paternity.  Nicholas's only true intimate, however, is a man of a different race entirely, the African who came to Bruges as a slave and was befriended by the servant Claes, who first communicated the secret of the alum deposit, who travelled with him to Trebizond to run the trading household, and to Cyprus to organise and under Nicholas reinvent the sugar industry there.  His African name is yet unknown, his Portuguese name is Lopez, his company name Loppe.  Now a major figure in the company, and the family, he listens at the end of the novel as both Nicholas and his new rival, the broker of the mysterious Vatachino company, look to the Gold Coast of Africa as the next place of questing and testing."

Scales of Gold - Volume IV

"For those who know the truth, the deaths of Katelina, Tristao, and Tzani-bey, the brutal forging of a new monarchy for Cyprus, even Nicholas's alienation from and reconciliation with young Diniz, have stemmed from honourable, even noble motives.  But gossip in Europe, fed by de Riberac and St Pol, puts a more sinister stamp on these events.  Under financial attack by the Genoese firm of the Vatachino, the Bank of Niccolo undertakes a commercial expedition to Africa, which young Diniz Vasquez joins partly as an act of faith in Nicholas, while Gelis van Borselen, Katelina's bitter and beautiful sister, joins to prove him the profit-mongering amoralist she believes him to be.  They are accompanied by Diniz's mother's companion Bel of Cuthilgurdy, a valiant and razor-tongued Scottish matron who comes to guide the young man and woman and ends up dispensing wisdom and healing to all; by Father Godscalc, who desires to prove his own faith by taking the Cross through East Africa to the fabled Ethiopia of Prester John; and by Lopez, whose designs are the most complex of all.  Through Madeira to the Gambia and into the interior they journey, facing and eventually outfacing the competition of the Vatachino and Simon de St Pol.  Like everyone but the Africans, both companies have underestimated even the size, let alone the cultural and religious complexity, of Africa: no travelers in this age can reach Ethiopia from the East, and the profits from the voyages of discovery and commerce recently begun by Prince Henry the Navigator are as yet mainly knowledge, and self-knowledge.  There is gold in the Gambia, and there is a trade in black human beings which is, as Lopez is concerned to demonstrate, just beginning to take the shape that will constitute one of the supreme flaws of the civilisation of the West.  There is also, up the Joliba flood-plain, the metropolis of Timbuktu, commercial and psychological 'terminus', and Islamic cultural centre, in which Diniz finds his manhood and Lopez regains his original identity as the jurist and scholar Umar; where Gelis consummates with Nicholas the supreme relationship of her life, hardly able as yet to distinguish whether its essence is love or hatred.  On this journey Godscalc the Christian priest and Umar the Islamic scholar both function as soul friends to Nicholas, prodding him through extremes of activity and meditation that finally draw the sting, as it appears, from the old wounds of family.  Certainly there is no doubt of the affection of Diniz for Nicholas, and surely there can be none about the passion of Katelina's sister Gelis, his lover.  As the ships of the Bank of Niccolo return to Lisbon, to Venice and Bruges, success in commerce, friendship, and passion mitigates even the novel's first glimpse Katelina's and Nicholas's four-year-old son Henry, moulded by his putative father, Simon, in his own insecure, narcissistic, and violent image.  On the way to his marriage-bed, the climax and reward of years of struggle, Nicholas is stunned by two blows which will undermine all the spiritual balance he has achieved in his African journey.  He learns that Umar -- his teacher, his other self -- is dead in primitive battle, together with most of the gentle scholars of Timbuktu and their children.  And on the heels of that new his bride Gelis, fierce, unreadable, looses the punishment she has prepared for him all these months: she tells him how she has deliberately conceived a child with Nicholas's enemy Simon, to duplicate in reverse -- out of what hatred he cannot conceive -- the tragedy of Katelina.  As the novel closes, we know that he is planning to accept the child as his own, and that he is going to Scotland.  How Nicholas will be affected by the double betrayal -- the involuntary death, the act of wilful cruelty -- is not yet clear.  There is a shield half in place, but Umar, the man of faith who helped him create it, is gone.  Nicholas's own spiritual experience, deeply guarded, has had to do with the intersection of mathematics and beauty, with the mind-cleansing horizons of sea and sky and desert, and with the display in friend and foe alike of the compelling qualities of valour and joy and empathy: the spiritual maturity with which he accepts the blows of Fate here may be real, but he has taken his revenge in devious ways before.  More mysteriously still, the maturity is accompanied by a curious susceptibility he cannot yet understand, a gift or a disability which teases his mind with unknown events, unvisited places, thoughts that are not his.  As much as his markets, his politics, or his half-hidden domestic desires, these thoughts seem to draw him north."

The Unicorn Hunt - Volume V

"Thinner, preoccupied, dressed in a suave and expensive black pitched between melodrama and satire, between grief and devilry, our protagonist enters his family's homeland bearing his mother's name.  Now Nicholas de Fleury, he comes to Scotland with two projects in hand: to recover the child his pregnant wife says is Simon's and to build in that energetic and unpredictable northern backwater a new edifice of cultural, political, and economic power.  Nicholas brings artists and craftsmen to Scotland as well as money and entrepreneurial skill, making himself indispensable to yet another royal James.  But are his productions there -- the splendid wedding feasts and frolics for James III and Danish Margaret, the escape of the King's sister with the traitor Thomas Boyd, the skilful exploitation of natural resources -- the glory they seem?  Or are they the hand-set maggot mound, buzzing with destruction, of Gregorio's inexplicable first vision of Nicholas's handsome estate of Beltrees?  Is Nicholas the vulnerable and magical beast whose image he wins in knightly combat -- or ruthless hunter of the Unicorn?  The priest Father Godscalc for one, fears Nicholas's purposes in Scotland.  Loving Nicholas and Gelis, knowing the secret of Katelina van Borselen's child, guessing the cruel punishment which her sister has planned for Nicholas, the dying Godscalc brings Nicholas back to Bruges and extracts a promise that he will stay out of Scotland for two years, and so remove himself from the morally perilous proximity of Simon, the father-figure whom he seeks to punish, and Henry, the secret son who hates him more with every effort he makes to help him.  Nicholas agrees, and turns to other business, mining silver and alum in the Tyrol, settling the eastern arm of his banking business in Alexandria, tracking a large missing shipment of gold from the African adventure from Cairo to Sinai to Cyprus.  These enterprises occupy only half his mind, however, for the carefully spent time in Scotland has confirmed what he suspects: that the still-impotent Simon could not in fact be the father of the child whom  Gelis has in secret borne and hidden, and who, dead or alive, is the real object of his quest.  In a stunning dawn climax on the burning rocks of Mount Sinai, Nicholas and Gelis, equivocal pilgrims, challenge each other with the truth of the birth and of their love and enmity, and the conflict heightens.  The duel between husband and wife finds them evenly matched in business acumen and foresightful intrigue, tragically equal in their capacity to detect the places of the other's deepest hurt and vulnerability.  Bu Nicholas is the more experienced of the two, and wields in addition, or is wielded by, a deep and dangerous power.  One part of that power makes him a 'diviner', who vibrates to the presence of water or precious metals under the earth, his body receiving also, by way of personal talismans, the signals through space of a desperately sought living object, his new-born son.  The other part of the power whirls him periodically into the currents of time, his mind aflame with the sights and sounds of another life whose focus is in his name, the name he has abandoned -- the vander Poele/St Pol surname whose Scottish form, Semple, is startlingly familiar to readers of The Lymond Chronicles, Dorothy Dunnett's first historical series.  The professionals Nicholas has assembled around him have always tried to control their leader's mental and psychic powers; now a new group of acute and prescient friends strives to fathom and to guard him, from his enemies and from his own cleverness.  Chief among these new friends is the fourteen-year-old niece of Anselm Adorne, the needle-witted and compassionate Katelijne Sersanders, who finds some way to share all his pilgrimages as she pushes adventurously past the barriers of her age and gender.  The musician Willie Roger, the metallurgical priest Father Moriz, and the enigmatic physician and mystic Dr Andreas of Vesalia add their fascinated and critical advice as Nicholas pursues his gold and his son through the intricate course, beckoning and thwarting, prepared by Gelis van Borselen.  In the end game, as the Venetian Carnival reaches its height, this devoted father, moving the one necessary step ahead of the mother's game, finds, takes, and disappears with the child-pawn whose face, seen at last, is the image of his own.  Yet there is a Lenten edge to this thundering Martedi Grasso success.  Why has Nicholas turned his back on the politics of the Crusade in the East to pursue projects in Burgundy and Scotland?  Who directs the activities of the Vatachino mercantile company, whose agents have brought Nicholas close to death more than once?  Have we still more ambiguous things to learn about the knightly pilgrim and ruthless competitor Anselm Adorne?  What secrets, even in her defeat, is the complexly embittered Gelis still withholding?  Above all, what atonements can avert the fatalities we see gathering around the fathers and sons, bound in a knot of briars, of the house of St Pol?"

To Lie With Lions - Volume VI

"Nicholas de Fleury goes from success to success, expertly operating large structures by the nice application of invisible pressure, as the craftsmen do in the miracle plays in which he has from time to time taken part.  Within the theatre of family he has produced the convincing illusion of harmony between himself and Gelis, his estranged wife, for the sake of their beloved, acknowledgeable son Jodi.  Within the circus of statecraft, where the lions of Burgundy and France, Venice and Cyprus, England and Scotland, Islam and Christendom stalk and snarl, the Banco di Niccolo wields a valued whip.  Its padrone is a cosmopolitan, virtually stateless man, intellectually drawn to the puzzle of history in the making, but not visibly compelled by the roots of race -- although, to be sure, some of his enemies think him motivated mainly by the passion of revenge on his own family.  Free now to enlarge and complete projects in the small, unsteady country of Scotland -- which the priest Godsclac, half guessing his intent, had compelled him to abandon for two years -- Nicholas carries out two coups de theatre which have consequences and resonances unexpected by their designer.  He spends ruinously of his time and the kingdom's money on a nativity play whose single performance, a glory of thought, feeling, and art which makes transcendence of all its illusions and momentarily unites its fractured community, hints at the strength and value of the wounded spirit who has devised it.  And he mounts a merchant expedition to the fish-fertile waters of Iceland, whence he lures and bests his old rivals the Adornes and the Vatachino company, as well as a new one, the Danziger pirate Pauel Benecke.  Sharing the adventure are Kathi Sersanders and Robin of Berecrofts, a Scottish youth whose courage, and desire to break free of the bounds of his sturdy mercantile heritage, bring him to the magnetic Nicholas as an admiring squire.  Together they explore the new world of the North, learn from the hardy generosities of the Icelanders, and, transformed in the end from actors and designers to spectators, experience in awe and humility Nature's own nativity play, the re-creation of a continent in the double explosions of Katla and Hekla, the volcanoes of Iceland.  Nicholas's well-wishers will need this glimpse of his humanity.  For in the matters he controls, Nicholas's plans are coming to dark fruition.  Gelis has a climactic announcement to make -- she has won the war between them because she has secretly been working for years for the Vatachino.  But Jordan de St Pol, whose painfully rebuilt career in France Nicholas has undermined once again, brings a devastating illumination: Nicholas knew of Gelis's connection with the Vatachino and skilfully played with it; further, all his projects in Scotland, from the nativity play and the Iceland expedition which brought him a barony, to more secret investments of the Bank's and the country's money, were meant in fact to wreck financially the country whose gentry, the St Pol/Semples, had terrified and rejected Nicholas's mother, and Nicholas himself, thirty years before.  He has carried out this plan because he could: he could not draw back from it because it was his.  In this final spectacle, the work of an angry child, of an obsessed artist, even his friends believe they see the death of Nicholas's soul, and desert him.  Stunned by his own dire success, Nicholas agrees with them: as the novel ends and the abandoned and pitiless banker allows himself to be carried East by the newly ascendant Emperor of Germany, he seems ready for burial.  Or, possibly, resurrection."

Caprice And Rondo - Volume VII

"Nicholas seeks another life in the violent and irresponsible company of his old sea-mate Pauel Benecke, but the quest-shapes of his life are printed too deeply for denial.  Already he has set in motion another search for that lost African gold used so cruelly to deceive him in his search for his child.  And the worldwide network of correspondence he maintains guarantees that counsellors for the Polish King will come seeking him, that new business projects will tempt him, that the religious and political leaders who have been using him as a bridge between West and East for decades will compel him to responsibility again.  Three times before Nicholas has been propelled East: to Trebizond, to Cyprus, to Sinai.  Now three forces converge to send him East again.  Anselm Adorne and Ludovico da Bologna's overt agenda is care of Christian interests in the East, Julius and the clever Countess Anna's spoken mission is to increase their business, but these groups also have covert reasons for drafting Nicholas in to help.  And Nicholas's cadets and soulmates from the Icelandic adventure, Kathi Sersanders and Robin of Berecrofts, now married and starting their own family, recognise that he needs a difficult and penitential enterprise to precipitate self-recognition and redemption, and urge him to go.  Meanwhile, those at home who had expelled Nicholas as a congenial 'wrecker' recover their economi and emotional balance, and, impelled to understand him better, turn to trace the mysteries of his birth and early history.  The Scottish St Pols who deny his paternity are sequestered in Portugal.  Now the maternal de Fleury ancestry comes into focus: the loving and terrified mother Sophie, who bore a dead son and then many months later a live one rejected as a bastard; the uncle Jaak de Fleury, who took the boy into his household at age seven as a menial dependent and subjected him to brutalizing contempt; the young 'aunt', Adelina, who came also to the cruel and sensual Jaak in childhood, to be in her turn abused and abandoned.  And the grandfather, Thibault de Feury, long rumored imbecile, whom Gelis and Tobie discover, despite paralysis and disease, those supreme gifts for mathematics and music, for witty puzzles and detached analysis, which Nicholas has inherited.  Nicholas meets his grandfather spirit to spirit, in an exchange of letter-puzzles, only once before Thibauly dies.  The dangerous bond between Nicholas and another de Fleury, however, twists slowly and fatally into sight as the long and frustrating journey of Nicholas and Anna into the East and back parallels the increasing illumination of the searching, speculating families at home.  The adored wife of Julius, the formidable Countess Anna with the numeracy to run a business and a desire -- cold, calculated, yet ultimately intense -- to seduce Nicholas, is actually his grandfather's child, his fellow sufferer in the abusive grasp of Jaak de Fleury, Adelina herself.  The obsessed woman plans to unravel not just Nicholas's commercial and political world, but his marriage and the whole structure of his adult life, freezing the two of the two of them in a tableau designed to end in the outlawry of incest before she brings about his death.  But Nicholas, master of the interlocking wheel of plot, has in fact recognized the shattered and vengeful Adelina within the stylish Anna, and worked to draw her safely east, away from his imperilled family.  Adelina's final attempt to destroy Nicholas becomes the means of reconciling Gelis and Nicholas to full marital partnership, leaving the rash and unrepentant Adelina to die in circumstances left somewhat mysterious.  The caprice and repetition of domestic plot, Adelina's plan to ruin Nicholas as Gelis had also attempted to do, is more than matched by the caprice of princes and the sickening replication of political immaturity which wastes both soldiers and civilians in military adventurism, Nicholas had learned the horrors of war in the sieges of Trebizond and Famagusta.  Now, unable to stem the caprices of Charles the Bold, he watches the phantom kingdom of Burgundy disappear from the European stage of Nancy.  At book's end he is restored to both his private and his business families, and they to him.  But the fading of a potential public life in the East, or in the now leaderless land of his mother, makes him look to the land of the man he believes is his father, and to the questions remaing for him, and Lady Dunnett, to answer in this last volume of the series: as an adult how does one choose a country and foster it, and what is the meaning of 'patriotism' in such a context?  If Nicholas is as he now believes the survivor of twin sons born to Sophie de Fleury and Simon de St Pol, what will this mean for the lives of his own so different sons, Henry de St Pol and Jordan de Fleury, as all come together in Scotland?  And how will the answers to these questions illuminate the meaning of those shafts of insight and foresight hinting at a link between this fifteenth-century story and the sixteenth-century story of Francis Crawford of Lymond?"

Gemini  - Volume VIII

Completed in 2000, one year before her death, the final volume by Dame Dunnett managed to resolve most of the loose ends from Volumes I-VII; while maintaining its historic timeline; and connecting the Niccolo series as a prequel to the Lymond series.  The incredible achievement of Dunnett is that she authored this work of historical fiction using hundreds of actual individuals of the time with just a few strategically-placed fictional characters.  The main character (Nicholas) suffers numerous beatings and serious injuries in every volume but manages to heal, survive and thrive with the minimal medicinal skills available during the 15th century.  There are many surprises in this last volume, all skillfully described to entertain the reader.  Although there are so many improbable coincidences in the series, I will accept them as they serve to enhance an amazing history lesson.  Above all else, the eight volumes of The House of Niccolo represent an incredible amount of research and an obvious love for the history of Europe - especially Scotland.  [JAM 9/29/2014]