15th-Century Tale With Plenty of Panache

THE year is 1462: Trebizond, the last bastion of the Byzantine Empire, has fallen to the Ottoman Turks; cultural and scholarly riches from ancient Greece are carried off to the princely courts of Italy. Florentine and Venetian banks control the routes of trade and the bourses of Europe's many wars. The islands in the Mediterranean Sea are now pivotal in the burgeoning luxury trade with the East. The Renaissance has transformed the face and mind of Italian culture and politics. This is the arena for Dorothy Dunnett's newest historical tour de force, ``Race of Scorpions,'' her third book about Nicholas vander Poele of Bruges (the Netherlands). At 21, Nicholas is a mercantile virtuoso whose ventures in alum and silk have brought him a vast fortune and subsidized a band of mercenaries and his own bank.

Desiring distraction, Nicholas has left his native Flanders for Italy; a good war, some heavy hand-to-hand combat, will surely assuage whatever ails him. En route, he becomes embroiled in a bizarre and savage attack upon Carlotta, the beleaguered queen of Cyprus. He escapes, only to be kidnapped by agents of James de Lusignan, Carlotta's half-brother and claimant to the Cypriot crown. In a violent game of abduction and counter-abduction, the rival monarchs seek to seduce and ensnare Nicholas's genius, as well as his army, to ensure hegemony over this island of treasures. Nicholas is forced to choose a side and fight.

Meticulously, the author unsnarls the threads of this Levantine conflict - the mercantile interests of Genoa and Venice in Cyprus, the hostility between the Islamic and Italian allies, the vengeance, vanity, and manipulation that lay behind the rival monarchs' petty cruelties. Culling these 15th-century secrets, Dunnett has written a novel as daring as any plot hatched by Tom Clancy but fixed in historical fact.

Because of her thorough historical detective work, she is able to paint portraits that are penetrating and faithful. Charismatic and ruthless, James of Lusignan is a golden prince of the Renaissance. His charm and promise capture the imagination and financial aid of Italian bankers and Islamic mercenaries, while his amoral recklessness endangers friend and foe alike. ``Cropnose,'' his mother, is a wise, bitter woman whose calculated plotting for her son is nearing fruition. Queen Carlotta is both weak and wily, striving to maintain her crown against the military strength of James and his allies.

Into this web of intrigue, Dunnett grafts a core of fictional characters - Nicholas, his friends, enemies, and family. We witness the jostling heroics, the malevolent treachery, the piquancy of military success and mercantile gain of the siege of Cyprus.

``Race of Scorpions'' is replete with descriptive passages marrying the artist's eye to the poet's tongue. Neatly, the author captures scenes of Renaissance warfare: ``Nicholas, urging his horse, saw Piccinino's guns fire, grey carnations in the hot sunlight, and then saw them tossed aside as the terrified trace-horses reared at the noise.'' Never content with a pastiche of names and dates, Dunnett penetrates the 15th-century psyche even as she attends to the minutia of manners and mores, social, legal, religious, cultural.

``Race of Scorpions'' is permeated with the uncertainties and pleasures of the early Renaissance: the dangers and difficulties of travel, the accepted cruelties that fretted the interlaced Italian, Byzantine, and Islamic cultures, and the popular pastimes and delights of the age.

The Italians have a word, ``Sprezzatura,'' that refers to that quality of doing all things well - with grace, verve, panache. In the Renaissance it was a required commodity. Dunnett has it. Her historical novels fairly resonate with it. Whether you have a mere fondness for history or it is your consuming passion, Dunnett is the place to start - and finish.

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