House of Niccolo by Dorothy Dunnett

March 18, 2007 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | 1 Comment
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Dorothy Dunnett is considered, in some quarters, to be the finest writer of historical fiction, ever. I have only read a handful of such books so I certainly can’t make that statement, but I can definitely believe that it might be true. Dunnett is a formidable writer. While not nearly as opaque as Gene Wolfe, her work is if anything even more labyrinthine. As in her earlier six book Lymond series, this tells the story of a fictitious man living in a meticulously researched historical milieu mostly populated by real historical figures. Dunnett takes no liberties with history, instead allowing her story to take place in the margins of the history books. The stories she chooses to tell are both epic and personal, for House of Niccolo‘s main character, like the hero of the eponymous Lymond books, is something of an epic person. Dunnett has been accused of having Mary Sue protagonists (a term for characters whose traits are chosen with wish fulfillment in mind) but that was more true of Lymond. In both series, though, the protagonist is more or less another species in terms of his intellect and abilities. Sometimes Nicholas is so ridiculously smart (and his life so ridiculously complicated) that I was tempted to throw up my hands at how outlandish it all seemed. But it never quite happened, for Dunnett’s studied prose makes everything sound so reasonable. Other times I started to flag from the sheer bulk of the series and its unrelenting detail, but after taking a break from reading I would always find myself coming back, eager for more.

Although Dunnett is nothing if not a plot-heavy writer, ultimately her books are centered on characters. Fortunately her writing is up to the task in this respect, too. The characters are very finely drawn, very real, not just the protagonist but also the wide array of supporting characters that orbit Nicholas’ life. Like all great fiction this is ultimately about more than who wins or loses…it takes a while for the themes to manifest but ultimately Dunnett explores just what responsibility man has to family, friends, and society…especially a man of such great talents as Nicholas. If you are at all interested in historical fiction you must try Dunnett. Most (including Dunnett herself before she died) recommend starting with the Lymond Chronicles and I agree. I think the Niccolo books are superior and normally I say start with the best, but in this case an exception must be made for the Niccolo books are so overwhelming in scope it is best to start with the more manageable series. Note, there are some connections between the two series, but there is absolutely no harm done to either narrative if you read one or the other first.

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