Race of Scorpions (The House of Niccolò #3) by Dorothy Dunnett

‘That November, God sent snow to north Italy, to the inconvenience of all who had to travel on horseback.’

In this, the third book in the House of Niccolò series, we re-join Nicholas as he comes to terms with the death of his wife Marian de Charetty.  It is 1462.  Nicholas is 21 years old.  The tumultuous events of Trebizond are behind him.  Nicholas is still considering his future when choice is largely taken from him.  He has joined Captain Astorre and his troop of mercenaries, when after a battle, he is kidnapped.  He and his skills are well known, and first Queen Carlotta and then her half-brother James (the Lusignan ‘Scorpions’) in their battle for Cyprus.

In another of her complex, densely plotted novels, Lady Dunnett puts Nicholas in the centre of a fifteenth century war over Cyprus.  Competing religious and trade interests, as well as some of Nicholas’s old foes from the previous books in the series add both interest and action.  Nicholas needs to negotiate a path between diametrically opposed foes, somehow trying to avoid disaster and death.  Not all his enemies are as obvious as the sadistic Mameluke commander Tzani-Bey al Ablak, and not all his plans will work smoothly.

This is a rich and rewarding series (I have read it several times and still make new discoveries).  The House of Niccolò is my favourite of Lady Dunnett’s two epic historical series. The trade of fifteenth century Europe provides opportunities for our enigmatic hero whose skills and abilities (and possibly an occasional flaw) are magnificently showcased.

If you enjoy detailed historical fiction set in fifteenth century Europe, if you enjoy complex multi-faceted characters undertaking high-stake adventures, then you may also enjoy Lady Dunnett’s novels.  But if you do choose to enter the House of Niccolò, I strongly recommend reading the novels in order.  Character development is critical to these novels.

Highly recommended.  Reading these novels can be challenging, but so very rewarding.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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