cover image Gemini: The Eighth Book of the House of Niccolo

Gemini: The Eighth Book of the House of Niccolo

Dorothy Dunnett. Alfred A. Knopf, $27.5 (720pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45478-6

Few literary projects these days rival in scope Dunnett's dazzling House of Niccol , a series of well-researched historical novels (each running over 500 pages) that propels its 15th-century hero across Turkey, Poland, Italy, France, Flanders, the Sahara desert and Scotland in search of gold, legitimacy, glory and family. This eighth and final installment finds the former banker Nicholas de Fleury back in Edinburgh, grappling with a whirlwind of royal machinations, business deals, family vendettas and empire-building challenges. Despite an absence of four years, the charming, shrewd Nicholas quickly insinuates himself back into the court of King James Stewart III, striking up a friendship with James's rebellious brother Sandy and spying for the king's coterie of advisors. Meanwhile, Nicholas must keep watchful eye on the wealthy St. Pol family, which has long hated him for claiming to be Simon de St. Pol's son. (The family insists he's the bastard child of Simon's promiscuous ex-wife.) Will the tempestuous adolescent Henry de St. Pol discover that he is Nicholas's child, not Simon's? Will France help Sandy topple the weak King James? Will the nefarious David de Salmeton, a religious procurator, be able to assassinate Nicholas? Can Nicholas and his wife, Gelis, maintain their hard-won happiness? These are just a few of the questions that underlie this intrigue-ridden epic. Considering the vast cast of characters (a list of them runs 13 tightly spaced pages), it's remarkably easy for the neophyte to enter Dunnett's adventurous world, for the author does an outstanding job of keeping each personality distinct and each of the innumerable subplots coherent. But despite the bounty of suspenseful sword fights, feasts, battles and closed-door negotiations, the real pleasure here lies in the reams of artful repartee, which can rival Jane Austen's for wit and subtlety. Despite a few minor flaws (the wives are too good, the peasant girls too compliant, a few historical distortions), Dunnett's work sits triumphantly at the top of a crowded field: it is a sensational, emotionally resonant epic. Introduction by Judith Wilt. (July)