1. For Discussion: Niccol? Rising
Despite all the comedy about unlikely items of "trade," from the canon at the beginning to the ostrich at the end, this novel manages to slip in a lot of information about the growing centrality of trade and commerce to the affairs of people and nations. "Alum," if you look it up, has a number of special commercial properties: is Dorothy nudging us here into thinking of it symbolically and if so how? How does the commerce in the mineral "alum," help knit the plot together? How about the gun? The ostrich? What commodities besides material goods are traded?
2. The protagonist "Claes" becomes "Nicholas" by the end of the novel: as with the names, how much of the character’s "development" is simply recognition of what has already been there, and how much is genuine change? How does Felix’s recognition in chapter six, "Claes was always making toys and other people broke them," illuminate this character? What about the exchange with Anselm Adorne towards the end of the novel: "I thought of a way to do it. That was all." "And did it. Why?" "To see what would happen."
3. In Katelina van Borselen Dorothy Dunnett has created a complicated, passionate and in some ways surprisingly modern young woman. What does Katelina mean when she says (chapter nine) that she wishes she were a widow? Does she understand her own nature at this point? How does her journey in the novel from daughter to lover to wife point up the dilemma of young women of rank in this period of transition between the medieval and the modern? In what respects is Katelina better or worse off than the servant Mabelie?
4. The deaths of Felix de Charetty and Jaak de Fleury are two of the more disconcerting and dramatic moments in the novel; more subtle but equally destructive are the underminings of the Scottish St. Pols, father and son. Why do certain intelligent observers come to think Nicholas engineered all these things? What level of responsibility do you think he bears in each of these cases?
5. Why does Marian de Charetty emphasize to the physician Tobie and the lawyers Julius and Gregorio that they must become Nicholas’s "keepers"? Are there others in the novel who perform this function? What, in this context, do you think Tobie means at the end of chapter eight when he observes of the weeping Nicholas that "the voice that he needed didn’t exist"?
6. For Discussion: The House of Niccol?
Throughout the eight books of the House of Niccol? series a picture emerges of Sophie de Fleury, the mother of Nicholas, and of her centrality in the life of her son. Can you put this picture together now –the Sophie of rumor and gossip, the Sophie of Nicholas’s slowly revealed memories, of his maturer judgement, of Andro Wodman’s reporting? Are there still some mysteries and obscurities in this portrait?
7. The House of Niccol? series offers a sustained and in many ways highly sophisticated version of the changes in intellectual , political and psychological structures which mark the transition from the medieval to the modern world. But like any good set of historical novels it abounds too in individual scenes and characters of great emotional, dramatic, and visual power, or stylistic verve, "set pieces" which hang in the memory even longer, perhaps, than the plot or the author’s philosophy of history. What are some of your favorites here–scenes of comic impact or tragic illumination? Best-drawn villain or victim, most vexatious female adolescent? Most breathtaking fight or chase? Most engrossing moment of romance? Most stunning surprise?
8. At the opening of the second volume of the series, and at the closing of the last volume, the voice of an astrologer-character replaces that of the novelist-narrator. What do you make of this–some invitation to compare and contrast those two professions?
9. Some readers will have come to the Niccol? series after reading the Lymond Chronicles, to which they are a ‘prequel’; others have now finished the Niccol? series and will go on to the sequel, the Lymond Chronicles. What are some of the dividends of doing it the first way? The second way? How (after a reading of both) are these two heroes, these two worlds, these two intricate plots, alike and different?