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Scales of Gold Reader’s Guide

By Dorothy Dunnett

Scales of Gold by Dorothy Dunnett


The questions, discussion topics, historical background, and author biography are designed to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Dorothy Dunnett’s eight bestselling novels in the House of Niccol?. We hope this guide will enrich your experience of these intriguing and adventuresome works of historical fiction.


The year 1464 finds Nicholas back in Venice. Plagued by enemies bent on dissolving his assets and smearing his character, he sets sail for Africa, legendary location of the Fountain of Youth, home to a descendant of Sheba and Solomon, and the source of gold in such abundance that men prefer to barter in shells. He will learn firsthand the brutality and grandeur of the Dark Continent, from the horror of the slave trade to the austere nobility of Islamic Timbuktu. He will discover too the charms of the beautiful Gelis van Borselen–a woman whose passion for Nicholas is rivaled only by her desire to punish him for his role in her sister’s death. Erotic, lush with detail, Scales of Gold embraces the complexity of the Renaissance, where mercantile adventure couples with more personal quests behind the silken curtains of the Age of Discovery.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. For Discussion: Scales of Gold

In Cyprus and Trebizond, even in Bruges, Nicholas and his friends had encountered various aspects and consequences of the practice, old as history, of humans enslaving humans. During this African adventure, what new elements in this practice come to the fore? What other aspects of Dorothy’s vivid portrayal of multi-cultural, multi-geographical Africa catch your eye in this novel?

2. Why does Father Godscale want to go to Ethiopia? What is Nicholas’s final judgement about the success of this failed mission, for the priest’s own soul, and for the general community of Christians?

3. How do some of the many transformations of the African Lopez recall (or reverse?) those of Nicholas vander Poele? What for you are the deepest or most interesting aspects of this soul-friendship? Why does the plot make a significant point of Umar’s final investment in being a father?

4. Is Gelis van Borselen the heroine of Scales of Gold? In which relationship are there elements of the traditional Romance plot ? When, and why, do you think she decides to do what she reveals to Nicholas on their wedding night?

5. Spectacles–a triumph of science, commerce and art, a ‘frivolity" Nicholas calls them at his Venetian party. What symbolic and practical uses does this product serve in the novel? How do spectacles connect with and compare to another ubiquitous product, useful as gift, in trade, as symbol, in this as in the other novels–books?

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?

About this Author

Dorothy Dunnett was born in 1923 in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. Her time at Gillespie’s High School for Girls overlapped with that of the novelist Muriel Spark. From 1940-1955, she worked for the Civil Service as a press officer. In 1946, she married Alastair Dunnett, later editor of The Scotsman.

Dunnett started writing in the late 1950s. Her first novel, The Game of Kings, was published in the United States in 1961, and in the United Kingdom the year after. She has published 20 books to date, including the six-part Lymond Chronicles and the ongoing Niccolo Series. Also an accomplished professional portrait painter, Dunnett has exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy on many occasions and has had portraits commissioned by a number of prominent public figures in Scotland.

She has also led a busy life in public service. In the past, she has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Library of Scotland, a Trustee of the Scottish National War Memorial, and Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival. She has also served on numerous cultural committees, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 1992 she was awarded the Office of the British Empire for services to literature. She lives in Scotland and has two sons and one grandson.
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