Series Review: The House of Niccolò
Well. Where do I even begin.
This series of eight books was an absolute wild ride from start to finish. I think it took a bit of a dip in the middle - books 5 and 6, The Unicorn Hunt and To Lie with Lions respectively - didn't quite match up to the excellence of Books 1-4, and even Books 7 and 8 were a bit patchy. But, globally, this is a series of spectacular writing, stupendous amounts of research, and character development and relationships the likes of which I don't think I've ever seen done before, certainly not to this expert level.
The complexities of the relationships between the characters are part of what makes the series work as a cohesive whole, as well as lending each individual book its stakes and sense of urgency. I can't really get too much into it without accidentally spoiling some of the big reveals of the last two books, but the psychological puzzles and interplays are as fascinating as the business and political ones that take place across the twenty years that the books encapsulate. The way the characters develop throughout the novels is also excellently managed - the way Nicholas grows as a person, the way he learns from his mistakes, how he learns to harness his intelligence and his (frankly alarming) tendency to sociopathy and how he heals from his grief, was one of the most enjoyable things to read. I was also blown away, book after book after book, by how damn clever he is as a character - there's something Sherlockian about him, and the way he so easily manipulates situations and people and can almost always exactly predict how people will react and how situations will develop themselves, but Dorothy Dunnett avoids his intelligence being used as a deus ex machina that magically explains away a difficult predicament or puzzle, or magically solves all the problems placed in his way.
There were a few criticisms I can level at the series as a whole: I still don't understand why the hell Nicholas ended up being able to divine for two and a half books. I had a hard time seeing that as anything other than a crutch for a plot that was starting to stretch a little thin and couldn't be resolved in any sort of timely, meaningful way at that point - and why was Nostradamus introduced for half of a chapter, and then never heard from or even mentioned again in the entire series? I feel like if the divining had been explored as a proper plot point, and brought into the stories earlier and wrapped up more conclusively, it wouldn't have felt as weird and jarring as it did. The series worked so well, and functioned so smoothly, as a rigorously-researched batch of historical fiction - why throw in the supernatural when that didn't seem to add anything, to anything at all? The pacing of the middle three novels (books 5, 6, and 7) also felt a bit off - a lot of skipping around to a lot of different places, a comparatively huge timescale compressed into a few long chapters, and some storylines and character arcs introduced rather suddenly and then just as abruptly wrapped up, with no indication of how they fit into the bigger picture of even if they did. I'm looking at you, random trips to Cyprus. By the end of the series, the main characters were so far spread out and spent so little time actually interacting that characters that felt very important in the early half of the series managed to feel tangential and under-explored and a bit like they were tacked on as an afterthought (the worst victim, in my opinion, of this was Gregorio, who was a fascinating, clever, wonderful, warm-hearted, loyal character and I don't think was actually given a spoken line in the last 2 books). And the big reveal of the last book, while suitably shocking and mind-blowing (I kid you not, I actually yelped. And then I texted my friend who recommended this series the word 'FUCK' in all caps for about 20 messages straight. And then I just sat there staring into the distance for several minutes before I felt like I could even keep reading), but it did seem a bit... abrupt. I'm very much looking forward to re-reading this series in the future and seeing if I can pick out all the clues I missed the first time round, knowing what I know now.
Overall, though, I absolutely adored this series. I adored the way I was gripped from the very first page, and how absorbing Dunnett's writing and pacing and research is, so that I never felt out of the adventure for even a moment. I loved the tension and the stakes that suffused every word of the climactic scenes, to the point where my house would have been on fire and I wouldn't have noticed or cared. The complexities of the political and dynastic intriguing, the permutations and possibilities and twists of the familial relationships, the sheer overwhelming emotion of Nicholas's many marriages and relationships - the emotional stakes of this series could not have been higher, and they were expertly hammered home every chance she got. I actually sobbed at some of the deaths, and screamed aloud at the pages, and shook the book at the sky while wailing "DOROTHY HOW COULD YOU!" I loved the scope of the novels, how far I felt like I was travelling with all of the characters, and discovering all of these new places and people with Nicholas and his crew. I loved how the setting and the time worked as an additional character in the series, never dictating the story but rather helping to move it along. I loved the strength of all the female characters, and how they were often the smartest, strongest, cleverest people in the room without ever being written as twentieth-century characters in a fifteenth-century story. And, above all, I loved the rigor and the meticulousness of the research that went into crafting such an intricate, complicated, wonderful story.
I highly recommend this series - they are work to read, as subtext and innuendo does as much heavy lifting as what is explicitly reading, and if you're not paying attention to every detail and every line of dialogue you miss a lot of things. But my God does that work pay off, and my god is this a series worth dedicating time and attention to. What you get out of it is sixty times what you put into it.
And I need more people to talk about these books with anyway, so please - everyone go read it. And then we can start a 'We Love Nicholas' fan group and get some t-shirts printed.