Sunday, November 30, 2014

Do You Know?

You either know about Dorothy Dunnett, or you don't. If you know, it's because you either have read and adored her books, or because you have a loved one whom you periodically lose to others in interminable conversations about the comparable merits of The Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolo. If you don't know about her, it's because you've been unlucky thus far. That ends now. 

Dunnett is the best novelist you've never heard of. She's usually mentioned alongside Patrick O'Brian and Mary Renault, and that's because her novels are historical fiction. But in terms of characterization and detail she's like Dickens, and the swashbuckling scope of her novels recalls Dumas, Hugo, and her compatriot, Walter Scott. Francis Crawford of Lymond, the protagonist of The Lymond Chronicles, was just named the most popular character of Scottish fiction. Half Peter Wimsey, half Scarlet Pimpernel, Lymond moves seamlessly through the capitals of early modern Europe: Edinburgh, London, Moscow, Istanbul, and Paris. The House of Niccolo takes place a century earlier, and in wider scope, from the Faroe Islands to the Gambia, Danzig to Caffa. I discovered Dunnett as a teenager, and have returned to her novels every other year since then. The medieval robots I've spent the last fifteen years contemplating first appeared to me in her books.*

* The Spring of the Ram (Al-Jazari's elephant clock); To Lie with Lions (Hesdin); Pawn in Frankincense (horological spinet).

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