The Unicorn Hunt by Dorothy Dunnett

The Unicorn Hunt is the fifth book in the eight-volume House of Niccolò series which follows the adventures of former dyer’s apprentice Nicholas de Fleury (also known as Nicholas vander Poele or Niccolò) now a successful banker and merchant. I loved all of the previous four books – although it took me a while to really get into the first one, possibly because I read it too soon after finishing the Lymond Chronicles and couldn’t avoid making comparisons – but I think this one has just become my favourite of the series so far, surpassing even the brilliant Scales of Gold.

A warning before I go any further: as followers of my blog will know, I usually make an effort to avoid spoilers in my posts, but I think it’s going to be almost impossible to discuss the fifth book in a series without spoiling anything. Unless you’ve already read the first four instalments, I would suggest starting at the beginning with Niccolò Rising and not reading the rest of this post until you’ve caught up.

In The Unicorn Hunt Nicholas is searching for two things: the gold which was stolen from his ship in the previous book and a child that may or may not be his. The search for both will send Nicholas and his companions on a journey across Europe and North Africa – but before the hunt begins, we are taken to Scotland where Nicholas is setting some elaborate schemes in motion.

Scotland, I suppose, may be a less exotic setting than the Black Sea port of Trebizond, the island of Cyprus or the African city of Timbuktu – but much as I’ve enjoyed learning about the places Nicholas and his entourage have visited in the previous books, it was good to be back on more familiar territory and in one of the few Dunnett locations I have actually visited many times! Later in the book the action returns to Bruges and Venice, incorporating trips to Cairo and Alexandria, the mountains of the Tyrol, and another brief visit to Cyprus, though for once I think I would have preferred the whole book to have been set in one place – after leaving Scotland I thought the story suffered slightly from the lack of geographical focus. There also seemed to be less focus on trade and business in this book than in the others; instead, the driving force of the plot is the conflict between Nicholas and his wife, Gelis.

I think this is the only series I’ve ever read where I feel I’m understanding the main character less with every book rather than more! The warmth and sense of fun he often displayed in the earlier novels is almost completely gone now, which is understandable considering some of the things he has gone through, but even so Dunnett really made me dislike Nicholas in this book, especially in the first half. I couldn’t help comparing his behaviour to Lymond’s in The Ringed Castle – both of them seem to deal with their pain by cutting themselves off emotionally from the people around them and the way Nicholas’s men were trying to keep him away from Scotland reminded me of the way Lymond’s friends were reluctant to let him return to Russia. Anyway, I’m fortunately not a reader who needs to like the characters to be able to enjoy a book – and Nicholas is still as complex and fascinating as ever, even if not very likeable at the moment, so we’ll see how I feel about him in the next book, To Lie with Lions.

Dunnett really excels at writing exciting set pieces and there were some great ones in The Unicorn Hunt, including a dramatic fight at the salt-pans in Scotland and a confrontation during an ascent of Mount Sinai (there were lots of ascents and descents of various types in this book, I noticed). But as usual, in what is otherwise a very dark book, the drama is balanced by some delightfully funny scenes – one involving a parrot, a mirror and a hat, and another with a gum-covered kite and a priest’s beard. The introduction of Anselm Adorne’s niece, Katelijne Sersanders (Kathi), also helps to lighten the mood and I think she’s part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much.

I did have one small problem with this book and that was the fact that we are asked to believe that Nicholas is now a diviner and has the ability to find people and objects by divining. I’m still not sure how I feel about this; I don’t really mind Dunnett adding a paranormal angle to the story (the Dame de Doubtance and her prophecies in the Lymond Chronicles didn’t bother me too much, for example) but I do prefer to see Nicholas solving problems using his own intelligence and powers of logic and reasoning, rather than using what appear to be magical abilities. It just seemed a bit too convenient that he suddenly discovers he is able to use divination to find things in a book where ‘finding things’ is the central plot point.

And hunting, as the title suggests, is a major theme of this book. The dowsing and divining are linked to this, but there are also lots of other ways in which hunting is incorporated into the story: hunting with hounds in Scotland, hunting chamois in the Tyrol, hunting for the stolen gold, and of course, hunting for the baby. The unicorn of the title and who or what it refers to could also be interpreted in several different ways. Like the unicorn, which is a mythical beast, for most of the novel we are never quite sure whether or not the existence of the child is also a myth and I thought it was wonderful that Dunnett was able to keep the reader in suspense so masterfully right until the very end of the book.

For a very different view of The Unicorn Hunt, see Leander’s post from a few weeks ago. I think it’s interesting that each individual reader can have different favourites and least favourites while still agreeing on the overall quality of the series.

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10 thoughts on “The Unicorn Hunt by Dorothy Dunnett

  1. Leander says:

    Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this! I was interested to see that you didn’t like the divining angle (as I didn’t) and yet still enjoyed the book so much overall. For me, that was such a frustrating development that it overshadowed the rest of the story, I think. Ah, but wasn’t the scene with the parrot great? It felt a little odd to have this moment of sheer chaotic brilliant farce in the middle of what is otherwise quite a dark book… I loved the kite section too. Kathi Sersanders is awesome. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I could definitely have done without the divining aspect, though it didn’t spoil the rest of the story too much for me. I’m reading To Lie with Lions now and as the divining has already been alluded to several times in the first few chapters, I think it’s something I’ll just have to accept.

  2. Alex says:

    I’m not reading beyond the first paragraph because I still have about 150 pages to go. Your favorite, really?! I finding it hard to come to terms with the cold-as-ice Niccolo, but know what, with a single scene, Dunnett has the capacity to put me to shame for doubting her. Looking forward to reading the end!

  3. Lisa says:

    I can & do admire the brillance of this book, and the ones that follow – but I lose interest in who Nicholas becomes and what he does. The pain inflicted and suffered just wears me down,

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t lost interest yet, which is lucky as I still have two and a half books to go. I can understand the pain and suffering getting too much, though.

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