Revisiting an old theory on the character, thinking, and development of Nicholas

I’m currently in the process of rebuilding the main website and while considering the structure of the content I realised that I’ve written very little here about the House of Niccolo compared to the substantial amount devoted to the Lymond Chronicles. I then remembered a piece I’d written on one of the email discussion groups many years ago and thought to look it out and see what I was thinking back then. It was in February 2000 and I had only read the first five books through Unicorn Hunt, but hadn’t yet started To Lie with Lions. (I would read that and Caprice and Rondo just in time for the release of Gemini.)

I had been thinking about a discussion thread that revolved around Nicholas as an “innocent”, and while considering some of the various arguments I’d come up with a tentative theory of Nicholas’ life and growth. In some ways this was an alternative to the “compartmentalised” theories that some readers had come up with, although there were aspects of those that I agreed with.
So here is that early theory of Nicholas and how he thinks and operates – wrapped in the chess metaphor that I used to illustrate it.


Nicholas as Chess Player

First of all I rather like the ideas mentioned in the original thread about Nicholas being an innocent in various different ways, and also the idea about each of the characters seeing Nicholas only in a way that they can relate to, but in particular my growing fondness for John Le Grant and his opinions has suggested something else.

I’m going to use a chess metaphor for this theory – it seems somehow appropriate and it’s an area I am obviously comfortable and experienced with and also allows me to relate my own character to Nicholas (hitherto I’ve tended to identify more with Francis – just wish I had his many skills in remotely the same abundance!) So I guess that means I get to make the same mistake as the characters!

To explain to those who don’t play chess in case they don’t get my drift: Different players play in different styles – there are those who are good all-round players but they are rare – usually players fall into two or three different camps.

Firstly there are those who have a natural or acquired feel for the positional side of the game and who naturally set up positions that are structurally sound before doing anything else. Their pieces are usually working in harmony with each other and the pawn structures are usually solid. They are difficult to beat because of this.

Secondly there are the tactical players who are adept at precise and deep calculation and usually adopt a forcing plan of fierce attack and/or strive for complications where their skills will be most use, but often ignore or are unaware of the broader positional aspects. They use a method of thinking that is basically: if I do 1 he can do 1 or 2 or 3, if he does 1 then I can do 1A, 1B or 1C. If I do 1A he can do 1AA, 1AB or 1AC …. etc.

This spreads out into a “tree” of analysis which soon becomes very complex indeed. See the diagram below – even after just 2 moves for each side there are a great many positions which needs to be visualised correctly and evaluated. And there’s another tree for each possible first move that I’m considering playing!

Tree of variations in chess

Tree of variations in chess

Thirdly and related to both in some ways, there are those who plan grand strategies and out-manoeuvre their opponent by stealth and cunning but who usually also require a good positional understanding like the first group to avoid weaknesses and also need calculation skills like the tacticians to finish off their plans.

(In case you’re wondering I am a tactician. Wild romantic attacks are my forte and I’m much less skilled at the positional side.)

It seems to me that like John, Nicholas has a very mechanistic mind. He is wonderful at building toys and machines and at planning long involved sequences of events. Yet John calls him innocent. I suspect that when we see him rising through the first few books he is thinking in a very tactical way – threat and counter-threat and counter-counter threat – but without any firm foundation to build on in terms of understanding of the basic concepts of what he is doing and more importantly why. Indeed as we see him progress he starts to try to act like the strategist, but because he lacks the basic soundness he makes mistakes and finds that his long involved sequences can go disastrously wrong.

Replace “innocent” with “naive” and it all starts to make more sense. He has to think everything through from first principles all the time because he hasn’t that grasp on the positional aspects – the automatic moral grounding that others take for granted – that allow him to start from a more advanced position and develop and learn from there. This is both a delight to his young and agile mind in that he can happily spend hours thinking things through with formidable concentration, and an almost fatal weakness in that he sometimes is so taken with the detail that he misses the bigger picture altogether.

To take the analogy one step further, I was very much like this as a teenage chess player – I calculated everything I could but was often outflanked by those with a better grasp of the whole. As I’ve grown up I’ve developed far more intuition and I’ve been able to build on the lessons of the earlier years – in life as well as chess after I returned to the game after 17 years away from it. I calculate less and trust to experience and judgement more.

In the case of Nicholas, I suspect that his disjointed childhood has left him with some of the moral and social guidelines missing, and he has been left to think through life for himself. But because his natural way of thinking has been mechanistic and he’s been often fighting for survival in one situation after another, he has taken a long time to learn to build the experience and general judgement that he needs.

I believe that one of the many reasons he mourns Umar so deeply is that he had started to provide that grounding and general awareness that was so lacking. Bereft of Umar’s guidance and under the extreme confusion and dislocation of Gelis’ wedding night revelation he reverts to type and undertakes more tactical responses to the events surrounding him.

How does Dorothy get him out of this situation? She brings in the most extreme form of intuition available to her – the divining and psychic episodes that make him cast about for explanations and seek to learn how to use these skills to understand people properly.

There is also the music – he treats it too in a mechanistic way at first but it soon becomes apparent that he has a “feel” for it and this is really another form of intuition. Perhaps one of the reasons he grows so close to Kathi is that she brings out this side of him.


So those were my early thoughts during my first read. Fascinating to watch your old self making tentative connections. I’d intended to elaborate on this as I went through the final three volumes but for various reasons it didn’t happen. I later spent much more time deep-diving into Lymond and only really read all eight of Niccolo as a whole once or twice more during the intervening years. However I have returned to it and recently finished reading Unicorn Hunt again so maybe as I progress again through the remaining three I’ll remember to watch for these themes and will be able to return to add more points to this theory.

DDS Weekend April 2018

The last few days have seen the annual Dorothy Dunnett Society AGM and Weekend in Edinburgh.

We had  new venue this time as the Royal Over Seas League, where we’ve been for quite a number of years, is being completely renovated. In any case the weekend has been getting higher and higher attendance levels recently and we were outgrowing the ROSL, so we’ve moved to John Macintyre Centre in the grounds of the Edinburgh University Pollock Halls of Residence. With a much larger lecture theatre with modern equipment and much better acoustics it looks like being our new home for the forseeable future.

For me the weekend started early with a lovely reunion with longtime Dunnett enthusiasts Olive and Kell De Pont, who were over from California for the weekend. We hadn’t seen each other for about 10 years so it was great to have dinner with them on Thursday evening – particularly as it was my birthday that day.

The official events started with the opening dinner at the Radison Blu hotel on the Friday evening, and it was good to find when walking down the High Stree to get there that the sun had made a welcome reappearance for our very late Spring (March had seen heavy snow and April has been pretty wet so far).

The High Kirk of St Giles

The High Kirk of St Giles on Friday evening

The Mercat Cross

The Mercat Cross

Lots of old friends to greet and the chatter went on till late.

Saturday saw us at the John Macintyre Centre which is close to Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park and the combination of the yellow broom bushes and the first blossom on the trees gave us fine views once the early rain cleared.

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat

Return of an old Friend

The first speaker allowed us to welcome a dear friend back into the fold. Dr Henk Beentje from Kew Gardens is a renowned botanist and had given a wonderful talk at the Edinburgh Gathering of 2000. We were delighted to see him return with an updated version of that talk on The Flora and Fauna of Lymondshire. There are a great many obscure and unexpected botanical and animal reference in the Lymond Chronicles and Henk has spent countless hours researching them. Complete with deeply researched and often contemporary illustrations his talk combined expert knowledge and lots of fun and it was delightful to hear him again, even if he did cast some doubt on whether you can really attach a soldier’s helmet to a sheep’s head with twine!

Friends and Romans

After coffee we had another rare treat. Author Lindsey Davis, known and loved all over the world for her Falco series of detective novels based in Roman times, and a friend and admirer of Dorothy, gave us a talk entitled “We Need to Talk About Influences” in which she recalled her early reading of Lymond and how she was inspired by Dorothy’s skills, as well as being taught by another of our old friends – Pauline Brace. She went on to tell us how she became an author and what issues are faced in the process of creating a series of very popular books and the pressures from fans and publishers. She later gave us some thoughts on her new series featuring Falco’s daughter Flavia Alba and answered questions on how she goes about writing. The whole session was conducted with the lovely wry humour for which she is well-known and went down very well indeed.

Book and TV News

After lunch we heard the latest news on the reissues of the books in the UK and also in the US. As we know the new editions of the Chronicles and King Hereafter have already been published, and we expect the House of Niccolo to appear in the Autumn. There is also a possibility that both The Lymond Poetry and the Johnson Johnson series will also reappear at some point in the future. The audiobooks, which are currently unavailable in their previous form, are being re-recorded and will be handled directly by Penguin this time.

The news on the proposed TV series is less certain but there has been positive discussion on the first screenplay and a revised one will be written in the next few weeks and resubmitted. If they go ahead then it’s likely that Game of Kings will be split into around 6 episodes and US money would ensure that the productions would be lavish and have the greatest chance of maintaining the sort of high production values that we all hope for.

Walking while sitting still

The final event before the AGM was a talk by Nicky Cannon on an imaginary stroll down the Royal Mile. Nicky is an expert on early Edinburgh and is the author of the Society’s Edinburgh: The Dorothy Dunnett Guide and her excellent talk would be a fine insight into Edinburgh geography and history for members who are not as familiar with it as those of us who live here. Indeed one piece of information which she had picked up recently was news to me but ties in very nicely to a story I’d heard from my father about tunnels under the High Street.

Caledonian Hotel

Caledonian Hotel

Since my days on the committee are long past, and ex-chairmen should not be ghosts at the decisions I left before the AGM and returned home to freshen up for the evening’s gala dinner at the Caledonian Hotel. I should however mention that Betty Moxon was retiring as Chairman this after an excellent period in post. Betty has been a superb Chairman and ambassador for the Society and we all wish her well.

Gala Dinner

The Castle Suite of the Caley is a fine setting for the dinner and a good time was had by everyone. The four speakers who gave us readings from Dorothy’s work to round off the evening all did an excellent job of bringing their chosen passages to life; I particularly enjoyed Stephen Hart’s accent for Marie de Guise in the final scenes from Game of Kings.

Today the delegates were visiting the Signet Library which I’m sure will have been a fascinating trip. I decided not to go – partly as I often do to make sure that no-one from overseas would lose out on a place to a local who can visit any time, and partly because my last memory of being there was for the reception following Dorothy’s funeral, and even after all these years I still didn’t feel I wanted to go back. I believe that some of our members were then going on to visit the historic Greyfriars Churchyard and if so they had a lovely sunny day for it. Maybe Spring is really here at last!

Safe journey home to all our visitors and we hope to see you all again in the future.


History in the Round – Understanding International Connections

Following my previous post I want to look at a different sort of connection – not mine to the characters, but the connections between the countries and cultures and prominent figures who feature within Dorothy’s books.

In part it was prompted by Alys West’s post – Five things I’ve learnt about writing from reading Dorothy Dunnett in which she looks at the valuable lessons she’s trying to make use of in her own work.

The topics Alys mentioned are mostly from the aspect of writing technique; such as viewpoint, making your main character flawed and making the cost of his actions matter. However I want to look at something rather wider here, at one of the things that I think makes Dorothy unique. That is, her ability to interweave the strands of history in a way that allows us to learn about the cross connections between countries –  why alliances were formed and why they might be broken and reshaped, what the strategic value of geographical position or natural resources meant to countries and their rulers, the role of religion, the role of trade, and the strengths and weaknesses of particular rulers and what their successes, failures, and eventually their deaths meant for the next phase of the game.

Writing these words I am struck anew by the fact that surely I should be talking about a historian – someone whose job it is to communicate these facts and build these theories of political interaction. Yet I’m not. I’m talking about a novelist, and one indeed whose books are often described on the one hand as fast-paced, rip-roaringly exciting adventures, and on the other is admired for her complex and real characters and her compelling world-building. When on earth does she get a chance to teach us about history?

Now I have read many articles and letters over the years about the teaching of history. It is a subject that has long fascinated me although I regretfully had to drop it as a subject in school at the age of 16 – it was impossible to fit in with physics, chemistry, engineering science, maths and english. (Ironically my favourite at university was history of science! Should have been a hint there.)

From reading these descriptions of other people’s experience of school history I suspect I did comparitively well. It appears that history teaching has being repeatedly cut in many schools in the UK over the last few decades and many fear for its very surival. However the nature of the lessons I remember was very much fragmented into different time periods and on particular countries. You might get the Romans in one term and the Vikings in the next. Then you’d move on to Henry VIII, and if you were in a Scottish school that might lead into the Rough Wooing and Mary Queen of Scots, while in England it might lead to Elizabeth and maybe the Spanish Armada. Then you’d be into the next academic year if you weren’t already, and you might have jumped to WW1 or WW2. Big gaps in between, mostly concentrating on one or two countries and the wars between them – Scotland/England, England/Spain or England/France. UK/Germany. But even there it would usually be pared down to smaller episodes, particular key battles. (I remember vividly bashing out a long and detailed project on the Battle of Britain on a typewriter that looked about as old and as a heavy as a Heinkel bomber!)

What we didn’t get was any sort of context, any idea of what else was happening in other countries when all this was going on. When the Angles were raiding the English coast and then settling there what was happening in what is now Norway and Sweden and Denmark, or for that matter in Orkney or the Western Isles or Ireland, and what caused this movement of people westwards. When the Lancastrians and the Yorkists were fighting it out for the throne of England what was happening in France or Prussia or Italy and was there an influence between them or were they all isolated from each other. Hang on, rewind, did France actually exist in its current form? Italy certainly didn’t. We have these fixed ideas of the current borders of Europe yet they’ve been incredibly fluid over the centuries.

What was Burgundy and why wasn’t it joined up? What about these city states like Venice, Florence and Genoa. What are all these little places like Savoy, or Alsace, and that big thing called the Empire which seemed to have something to do with the Christian Romans. And why were some of them at war with the Pope when they’re supposed to be Christian and why are some countries appearing to help the Ottomans. Oh it’s all so confusing! Can’t anyone give us an overview? Join up the dots? ………..

Well actually, someone can. But she wasn’t a historian and she never went to university and she writes (gasp) fiction, and (whisper it) it has a romance in it.

But I don’t know anyone who could pull together the many threads of history and make you understand the connections as Dorothy Dunnett could.

Until I read Lymond I had no real idea that Suleiman and Mary Tudor and Ivan the Terrible all ruled at the same time – no-one had mentioned them together and I hadn’t put the dates side by side. Until I read Niccolo my only knowledge of Alum was from a Chemistry set I got for Christmas when I was about 12. I had no idea of its critical importance in world trade. I hadn’t considered Russian history and the attempts to forge trading links. I knew about the cod wars in the 1960, but not the ones in the 15th century. I hadn’t understood the importance of “the rock that burns” – coal, or the wool trade which was largely controlled by the church, or the sugar trade and the lengths people and crowns would go to secure it. I hadn’t undestood the role that an advisor to the king, such as Jordan de Riberac, could take and the repercussions that could ensue from their financial and political expertise. Or how difficult it must have been for a king to find an advisor he could trust, when he was constantly surrounded by the court.

Dorothy took the European stage and made it come alive and showed me all those connections, the ebb and flow of war and trade and the shifting sands of alliances in a way that no school instruction and no history book I’d read since ever did. She combined her own knowledge of commerce picked up while working at the Board of Trade, doubtless a lot of political understanding picked up from Alastair and his many connections, and her formidable levels of detailed research, and by the time it had filtered through her agile and intricate mind it had turned into this marvellous series of stories combined seamlessly with the purest and most complete synthesis of European history. But she did it for me and thousands of other readers almost without us noticing – while we were too engrossed in the drama and the characters and the intrigue of her wonderful sagas.

This is one of her most important contributions. This is what historians as well as writers should aspire to. And if you’re a student of history then you could do a lot worse than ditch some of the dry textbooks and read her books. You’ll never look at history quite the same way again!

Comparisons and Connections

This post was prompted by a recent exchange on Twitter, where I’m pretty active (@spiderbill if anyone wants to follow along). The conversation turned to readers who had loved Lymond but couldn’t get into Niccolo (both series and character) and Ellen Kushner, who as many of you will know is a very well respected author and avowed Lymond fan, said she felt HoN was maybe too much writing technique and not enough heart.

Allison Stock, who has just read Lymond for the first time and has been entertaining us with her comments, and is now three-quarters of the way through Niccolo, asked in reply if Ellen felt “…was that BECAUSE of Nicholas as a character, or was Nicholas’s character a result of excessive technique?” @DunnettCentral then asked for other’s comments but I felt it was impossible to summarise such a complex issue in the 140 character format of Twitter. So here we are!

As always there were varied responses around the basic topic of which series people like best. One felt that Nicholas was arrogant; which slightly surprised me as that is usually a jibe thrown at Lymond, though I think I understand what was meant. Another said that Nick was motivated by revenge. On the other side the HoN was felt to be greater in scope – more diverse socially and culturally, and with more believeable women compared to the brilliant ones of the Chronicles.

This discussion took me back to the halcyon days of Dunnetworks and Marzipan discussions, where we compared and contrasted the two series on many occasions. It was interesting to hear one old chestnut revived – that the series you start with is the one you prefer. That was a common view for a long time and has some apparent merit as a common sense idea, but in fact in the days when membership of the email lists ran to many hundreds this was tested and found to not be anything like as clear cut as expected.

Now I should declare my allegiances at this point. I adore both series but if I was on that fabled castaway island with the miraculous choice of reading I would take Lymond every time.

It’s an emotional response without doubt – the characters in HoN are complex and intriguing and fascinating but for me the ones in LC are vivid and alive to the point where you feel you know them personally, and the emotional connections they make with each other and with us feel as concrete as those in our real lifes. In a very real sense we are in love with them, we yearn with them, we despair at the cruel turns which block their paths to happiness, we feel their confusion and their clarity, their disillusionment and their determination. We shout at the books in horror as we see a wrong decision or a missed opportunity. And we cry with Philippa when the worst possible tune is played by the band below her windowsill, and feel the stab in the heart as Lymond in the tower shuts down his body to maintain a flicker of life with her name on his lips.

For all the wonderful descriptions, the ingeniously deep plotting (by both author and protagonists), the richness of the interactions and the historical connections, I don’t quite have the same emotional response to HoN. There are times when it comes close: when you feel Gelis’ confusion over her feelings towards Nicholas, when you grasp something of Kathi’s hyperactive pesonality, or Tobie’s curiosity mixed with apprehension about where Nicholas could be heading next. But perhaps because the main character is so veiled in his emotions despite us seeing far more often through his perspective than we ever see through Lymond’s, it feels that there is a level of connection that is missing.

As an aside it reminds me of a conversation Dorothy and I once had. The discussion had turned to music and she was quizzing me about my tastes after I’d mentioned the coincidence that Alastair and I shared our choice of favourite symphony – Beethoven’s Seventh. She knew I was a former sound engineer and understood when I said there were certain types of music that I could admire and analyse despite not really liking them – classical voice for instance does very little for me. I can listen to someone like Fischer-Dieskau and marvel at his control and tone but I don’t actually like listening to lieder as preferred music as I just don’t connect to it emotionally, and to me emotion in music is everything. We discussed the music of Mozart, undoubtedly great, wonderfully flowing melodies, but for me the sheer genius and emotional impact of Beethoven, the crashing splendour and turmoil of Neilsen, the romanticism of Rachmaninov – that is the music (on the classical side) that I connect to the most. Dorothy understood, though being a lover of opera she did encourage me to listen to more of Mozart’s contributions to that field. (We never did get round to Italian opera before the conversation took different turns!)

Now all this is not to say that this is a fault in House of Niccolo, it is simply that my connection to the books is on a more emotional basis. Others may have a very different connection. I’ve often heard Ann McMillan wax lyrical about Nicholas for instance and there is no doubt that she has a connection to and perhaps an understanding of him that is different to mine. Another dear friend and long-time correspondent Tina Dallas also feels a closer bond to both Nicholas and Gelis than to Lymond.

Nor are my observations above a criticism of the writing in any way. Unlike some other authors (who may be more beholden to their publishers), Dorothy didn’t want to write a second series of Lymond. In returning to a series format after completing a near decade of research and writing of the outstanding King Hereafter, she wanted to do something new, something different, to challenge herself and her readers in different ways before leading them full circle. We see her swapping character traits and looks initially, maybe just to remind us that all is never what it seems and to show us that not only is there more than one kind of hero but that life often has many shades of grey, and that personal motivations can be even more byzantine than those of Lymond’s political landscapes.

But she was also developing an even wider and more complex series of ideas. For example, are heroes always heroes, are villains always villains, or are they entangled and intertwinded? Do heroes do bad things, whether for good or evil, and does that stop them being heroes? Do villains ever do brave things for the right reasons, and are they born villains or do circumstances create them? We’re a long way from the blatant evil of Graham Reid Mallett!

And what of the main characters themselves? One of the Twitter posters said that “Niccolo grew into his character; Lymond’s seemed fully formed at 21.” and that is also a key point when attempting to compare the series. Lymond has had the benefit of Sybilla’s immaculate upbringing and the resources available to a noble family. He has then been tested in the most dangerous of situations in the galleys and as a mercenary. He appears fully formed when we first meet him, though it is the missing/damaged aspects of his life and the unravelling of his psyche and the moral certainties he had relied on that forms a large part of the story. Nicholas’ story is starting earlier, with a far poorer education and troubled background, lacking mother or father and with only Marion’s necessarily detached guidance to steer him. His is a story of development, of what circumstances shape that person he becomes, of what demons – some obvious and others deeply hidden – he must face and overcome. It is also very much a story of moral development from the ground up, lacking guidance or moderation after Marion’s death, and possessed of a fearsome ability to create and set off intricate scenarios that have unpredictable consequences, he must learn from experience and sometimes take the wrong route before building a moral compass of his own.

Such differences and the added complexities of Nicholas’ story make fair comparisons almost impossible. We can read them in many ways but ultimately only marvel at the wordsmith’s skill and the exquisit world building. For me, the romantic chess player and emotional music listener, it is the first series that captures my heart a little more completely. For others, perhaps with Dorothy’s love of puzzles, and a deep appreciation of interwoven and multi-layered plots it may be the second.

But of course you know that she regarded them as one unified series of 14 books…

Is that the faint sound of laughter I hear?

I hope so, for in these precious gifts of books we have found a banquet under the heavens that will serve us for ever!