This is the third book in the House of Niccolò series, the first two being Niccolò Rising and The Spring of the Ram. The series is set in the 15th century and follows the adventures of Nicholas vander Poele as he travels throughout Renaissance Europe and beyond. By the time this third volume begins, Nicholas’s spectacular rise from dyer’s apprentice to head of a successful trading company, bank and mercenary army has not gone unnoticed and has brought him to the attention of various people who are hoping to use his skills for their own purposes.
In Race of Scorpions Nicholas finds himself kidnapped and taken to Cyprus, an island torn apart by civil war. Cyprus is in a strategically important location and has become the centre of power struggles between various groups including Christians and Muslims, Genoese and Venetian merchants, Egyptian Mamelukes, Portuguese traders, the Pope, the Sultan, the Knights of the Order of St John – and the two Lusignan siblings who are fighting for the crown. Both of the claimants to the throne, Queen Carlotta and her half-brother James de Lusignan (known as Zacco), are determined to recruit Nicholas and his army to their side and are prepared to use any means possible to do so. Nicholas must choose which of them, if either, to support in their battle to gain control of Cyprus, but as well as being drawn into the conflict between Carlotta and Zacco, Nicholas faces some problems of a more personal nature when he is reacquainted with Katelina van Borselen, who we first met in Niccolò Rising.
Many of the characters we have been getting to know over the previous two books are here again – including Tobie, Loppe, Astorre and John le Grant – and we are also introduced to some new ones. A lot of the other characters in the book are real historical figures and one of the most fascinating, I thought, was Zacco’s mother Marietta (known as Cropnose after her nose was bitten off by her rival). Nicholas also meets his young cousin Diniz Vasquez for the first time, contends with a new villain in the form of the Mameluke emir, Tzani-bey al-Ablak, and tries to unravel the complex motives of Primaflora, a beautiful courtesan who is working for Queen Carlotta…or is she really working for Zacco?
Luckily, with his talent for solving puzzles and coming up with labyrinthine plots and schemes, Nicholas is adept at getting out of the difficult situations he finds himself in and although his plans don’t always work out exactly as he wanted them to, he usually manages to stay at least one step ahead of everyone else, including the reader – or this reader at least, and I don’t mind admitting that! But despite not quite understanding everything that is happening or being said, I still loved this book. It also features one of the best scenes in the series so far, certainly one of the most eerie and atmospheric. I’ll never be able to see a moth again without thinking of it!
I loved the setting too – I haven’t been to either Cyprus or Rhodes (Dorothy Dunnett’s books always make me aware of how little of the world I’ve actually seen) but as usual every location is described so thoroughly I can form a vivid picture of them without ever having been there. And not only have I never visited these countries, I know almost nothing about their histories either so it was good to have an opportunity to learn about the Cyprus civil war – a fascinating piece of 15th century history I’d never read anything at all about before.
However, I wouldn’t recommend reading Race of Scorpions unless you’ve read the previous two novels in the series first. These books are complicated enough as it is without reading them out of order and you would also miss watching the development of Nicholas’s character over the course of the series. I really enjoyed this one, and luckily for me I still have five more House of Niccolò books to read. Scales of Gold is next!