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Dorothy Dunnett does not rest on her laurels. With Caprice and Rondo, volume seven in her House of Niccolo series, she adds still more mystery and suspense to the labyrinthine plots within plots within counterplots that have marked the career of her 15th-century merchant/adventurer protagonist, Nicholas de Fleury. But first-time readers of Dunnett be forewarned: Although the Niccolo series is ably introduced and partially explicated by Judith Wilt, Caprice and Rondo (Wilt's introduction notwithstanding) will be heavy going for someone who has not read the earlier novels in the series.
At the end of volume six, To Lie with Lions, Dunnett's "master dissembler" - now in Scotland - has finally brought to fruition his most complex project: to wreck financially the country whose gentry terrified and rejected Nicholas's mother and Nicholas himself (see volume one, Niccolo Rising). It is a vengeance that has turned even his closest companions against him, a dire success that seems to ruin him as well as his adversaries. And, as we learn in this next Niccolo volume, it is not just Nicholas at risk. Everyone around him - from long-time friends and associates like Julius of Bologna to Nicholas's estranged wife Gelis and their son Jodi - faces potential disaster.
Now, as Dunnett's readers have come to expect, the real mysteries and revelations begin, acted out on a playing field that stretches from Scotland to Poland, to Muscovy and beyond.
There is, for example, the looming shadow of David de Salmeton (see volume three, Race of Scorpions), the discredited Vatachino agent who is back in favor again - this time in Scotland. What are his intentions toward Nicholas and Nicholas's family?
There is Countess Anna von Hanseyck, the loving and beautiful new wife of Julius. But is she who she says she is? The question endures through understandings and misunderstandings, treachery and trust, and finally achieves an answer, of sorts, only after Nicholas learns more about his own identity.
And, of course, there is always the riddle of Nicholas, who began as Claes vander Poele, and is now Nicholas de Fleury, former governor of the Banco di Niccolo, whose soul is endangered because of the schemes his busy brain cannot resist.
One of the charms of Dunnett's historical novels is the way Dunnett intermingles her own players with characters "recorded in history." Charles, Duke of Bergundy, Anselm Adorne, Conservator of Scots Privileges in Bruges, and Danzig privateer, Pauel Benecke share a fascinating partnership with Dunnett's own creations: Syrus de Astariis, mercenary commander, Michael Crackbene, shipmaster, Thibault, vicomte de Fleury.
Although several of my favorite players have died before the adventures chronicled in Caprice and Rondo, others have taken their places; and some of the familiar stalwarts seem to have grown in stature.
But the surest sign that the denouement is approaching is the reappearance, in this novel, of Nicholai Giorgio de' Acciajuoli, the Greek whose broken wooden leg was, perhaps, the catalyst that created the House of Niccolo.
At a reading given in fall 1997 in Kansas City, Dunnett let drop a tantalizing comment: "In the eighth [and last] volume of the House of Niccolo, I plan to link Nicholas with my Lymond Series." For those readers who have read and re-read, multiple times, the volumes in both series, it makes for almost unbearable suspense to find out how the two will meet.
Reviewed by Robert C. Jones.