House of Niccolò


Last Friday I saw an amazing Lohengrin at San Francisco Opera, including a truly fabulous vocal and dramatic performance by Brandon Jovanovich in the title role. With its story of a heroine who must swear never to ask her husband’s name and then begins to wonder who the man who married really is, the plot gave me a lot to think about in terms of the struggles I’m dramatizing for Suzanne and Malcolm. A key scene in the opera is Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding night. Though it begins with the now iconic wedding march and includes some ravishing music, it is ultimately a confrontation that marks the end of a marriage rather than the consummation of one.

Watching it I thought about other memorable wedding night scenes. Peter and Harriet’s in Busman’s Honeymoon is probably my favorite for emotional resonance, but I was also thinking about stories in which the wedding night veers off from the expected and, as in Lohengrin, takes the couple in a different direction. One that immediately came to mind is Nicholas and Gelis’s wedding night in Scales of Gold in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. It contains what is known to Dunnett readers as The Wedding Night Surprise, a much analyzed and debated scene that changes the course of the marriage and the series. (As a side note, Saturday was Dorothy Dunnett Day, and I spent it at lunch with some wonderful Dunnett readers).

For my November teaser it seems appropriate to post a bit from Malcolm and Suzanne’s wedding night from His Spanish Bride (which will be released on November 23). What are some of your favorite wedding night scenes?

I just got some gorgeous coverflats for The Paris Affair, so I’ll give away a signed one to one of this week’s commenters. And check out this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition from Cordelia to Violet.

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Malcolm drew a breath and rapped at the bedchamber door.
“Yes.” His wife’s—his wife’s—voice came from behind the polished panels. “That is, come in.”
He turned the handle. Never had he felt such trepidation at stepping into his own bedchamber.
Suzanne sat on the dressing table bench, wrapped in a dressing gown of seafoam silk. Her dark hair spilled loose over her shoulders, the cropped bits still curled round her face. Her bare feet peeped out from beneath the silk and muslin of her dressing gown and nightdress. He had seen her in dresses that exposed more skin, but something about the déshabille was at once more seductive and more vulnerable than any glimpse he’d had of her before. His throat closed. His mind clamped down on every impulse of his body.
“Do you have everything you need?” His voice sounded thin to his own ears.
“Yes.” Her own voice was like frayed silk. “Addison arranged things perfectly. Though I’m afraid I’ve quite taken over your dressing table.”
Enamel boxes and glass jars clustered on the dressing table top. He wasn’t sure what had become of his shaving kit until he saw it on the chest of drawers. He saw something else beside the chest of drawers. A silver cooler with a bottle of champagne.
“Addison left that for us,” Suzanne said. “A touch of romance I wouldn’t have expected.” She bit her lip as though she wasn’t sure about the word “romance.”
Two crystal glasses stood on the escritoire, sparkling in the light from the brace of candles. Malcolm wasn’t sure whether to thank his valet or groan. He picked up the champagne bottle and opened it, which at least gave him something to do with his hands. He splashed champagne on the dressing table but managed to hand Suzanne a glass without breaking it or spattering champagne on her. He picked up his own glass and touched it to hers. To say “to us” seemed presumptuous when there scarcely was an “us.” Instead he said, “To the future.”
She smiled and took a sip of champagne. He did as well, a rather deeper sip than he intended. “Suzanne—” He retreated to lean against the chest of drawers. “We needn’t— There needn’t be anything between us until after the baby’s born. Or even after that. Not until—not unless you’re ready.”
He more than half-expected her to look away. Instead she met his gaze. Her eyes looked very open. He realized it was because she’d removed the blacking she used to line them and darken her lashes. “You already made that very obliging offer. But we’re married, and I think we should begin as we mean to go on, as it were. “
He took another sip of champagne. His mouth was dry. “What I’m trying to say is you can define how we mean to go on.”
“And what I’m trying to say is that I’d welcome new memories to make the old go away.”

My friend Penny Williamson and I spent Friday afternoon at a matinée of the new Star Trek movie. We both loved it. It manages to simultaneously be fresh and innovative and yet true to the original. The actors do a fabulous job of capturing the characters we know so well, in mannerism and vocal patterns (and the way the writers wrote their dialogue). You can really believe these characters will grow into the characters from the original tv series. And yet the new actors never seem to be mimicking, they make the characters their own. Since I love to move back and forth in time in my own writing and examine my characters at different points in their history, I particularly enjoyed the prequel aspect.

As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, Penny and I both love to talk about favorite series. When we first became friends, we spent endless lunches analyzing and speculating over Dorothy Dunnett’s books (this was in the years when the House of Niccolò series was still being written and published). More recently, we could be found picking apart Alias over lattes in our favorite café. Waiting for the movie to start Friday, we were discussing the season finale of Lost. Penny and I’ve been discussing Lost a lot lately. In fact, we talked about it for the entire five hour plus drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Ashland, Oregon, on our recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Lost fascinates and baffles both of us. Usually we can come up with a theory about where we think a story arc is headed (wrong perhaps to varying degrees but at least a theory that works with the information at hand). With Lost, every time we think we have something figured out, the next episode pulls the rug out from under us.

I blogged a while back about the delights of speculating over a series. Part of it of course is trying to unravel the plot. When I was a teenager, my mom and I had numerous discussions about Star Wars in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I still remember the moment when, thinking about Arthurian mythology, I said “oh, I know, Luke and Leia are brother and sister.” Of course, I was thrilled to be proved right when we saw Return of the Jedi (the day it opened). But mostly, I was relieved to see the characters I cared about get the happy ending I so wanted them to have. Thinking about Star Trek and Lost, I realized how much of the allure of an ongoing series is the characters. Characters you care about and root for. Characters who seem to have a rich inner life off the screen/page. Characters you want to learn more about. Characters whose fates seem very real and a matter of great concern (I confess to having tears in my eyes at one point in the new Star Trek movie, and the recent Lost season finale definitely left me choked up).

I returned to the world of another favorite series recently when I read Laurie King’s The Language of Bees. It was a delight to step back into Russell & Holmes’s world. When I finished the book, I didn’t want to leave that world (partly because of the questions left to be answered in the next installment, but mostly because I wanted to spend more time with these characters). I’ve been rereading earlier books in the series since, unable to move on to something new.

What makes you bond with the characters in a particular series? Have you seen the new Star Trek movie? Do you watch Lost? If so, do you have the faintest idea of where the show is headed? :-).

Returning to my own series, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Cecily Summers’s reply to Mélanie’s letter from last week about their children and the Edinburgh premiere of Simon’s play.

My friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and I spent a wonderful afternoon today at a party of Dorothy Dunnett readers. Dunnett readers, as I’ve blogged about before, tend to be a fun, well-read, and extraordinarily nice group of people. Over tea and wine and a delicious array of food we talked about books by Dunnett and others as well as favorite television series.

There’s something about Dunnett’s books that particularly lends them to discussion and analysis. They’re so complex and multi-layered. The books aren’t mysteries, but there are mysteries running through both the Lymond Chronicle and the House of Niccoló which provide endless food for debate and speculation. Even now both series are finished, plenty of unresolved questions remain. Add to that vivid historical context, rich literary allusions, and a fascinating cast of characters, and it’s hard to read Dunnett and not want to talk about the books. As we discussed at the party today, in the dark ages before the internet, we all had long lists of questions we wanted to discuss with other Dunnett readers. For a long time, the only other Dunnett reader I knew was my mom. We would discuss and debate the books all the time. Penny and I first became friends because we both loved Dunnett books. We’d spend long lunches talking over the Lymond Chronicle and debating what might happen next in the House of Niccoló.

Through my Dunnett friends, I’m also involved in a discussion group of Dunnett readers who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you’d be amazed at the parallels :-)). This evening, I’ve been pondering what it is about certain stories that seem to particularly lend themselves to discussion. Ongoing story arcs are a big part of it, so book and television series both lend themselves to reader and viewer discussions, online and in person. Dunnetts’ series and BVTS both have complicated, ongoing stories, with plenty of questions about who’s real agenda is what, who will end up with whom, how characters may have been related to other characters in the past, and a host of other mysteries. Not to mention books, episodes, and seasons that end with nerve-wracking cliff hangers.

Another important element is characters one comes to care about and root for. Sometimes, particularly when there are romantic triangles, the rival merits of the characters become a topic of discussion. I recall a number of debates over Gelis verus Kathi in the House of Niccoló or Angel versus Spike on BVTS.

The X-Files and Alias also lend themselves to discussion, as does Lost (I’m watching last week’s episode as I write this and will probably have to rewatch it to make sure I didn’t miss a vital clue). I think the more a series, television or book, has an going mytharc (to use an X-Files term), with story and character development that extends from episode to episode or book to book, the more it lends itself to discussion. The mystery series I talk about the most with fellow readers may wrap up the central mystery within a book but the continuing characters have plenty of ongoing issues that stretch from book to book. Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, and C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series all come to mind. When I finish one of the books, I inevitably want to talk about it (particularly the in the case of the recent George and Harris books which left lots of unresolved questions). They aren’t mysteries, but the same is true of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. There are always questions, whether it’s about the identity of villains, Colin and Eloise, or the Pink Carnation herself.

Another thing all these series have in common is vivid, richly-detailed world-building, whether it’s Dunnett’s 15th and the 16th century Europe and beyond, suburban Sunnydale, Mulder & Scully’s conspiracy-rife FBI, Sydney Bristow’s CIA and the Alliance, an island that moves back and forth in time (and goodness knows what else), Lynley & Havers’s Scotland Yard, Holmes & Russell’s 20s Britain and beyond filled with puzzles and adventures, Sebastian St. Cyr’s dark Regency London, or the Pink Carnation’s adventure-filled Napoleonic Europe. They’re all worlds I enjoy visiting, filled with characters I enjoy spending time with.

Do you have favorite series, whether literary or on television, that lend themselves particularly to discussion? Do you seek out friends to talk them over with? What elements in series do you find particularly good topics for analysis?

Be sure to check out this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter from Quen to Charles.

Last week, I had the fun of finally meeting in person my fellow writer and History Hoydens contributor Lauren Willig. Lauren was in California as part of a book tour for her novel The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. If you haven’t already discovered Lauren’s Pink Carnation books, do so now. They’re a wonderful Napoleonic Wars spy series, filled with adventure, intrigue, romance, playful allusions to The Scarlet Pimpernel, and an equally fun modern-day frame about a contemporary graduate student who is uncovering the history of the Pink Carnation while researching her dissertation in London. I was so excited to have a new book in the series to read, and it was a special treat to get to meet Lauren in person.

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Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays growing up, not for the candy but for the chance to dress up as whatever character I chose. I was a medieval lady (complete with steeple hat with veil), Maid Marian, Lady Jane Grey (the year I’d first gone to England), a colonial girl (in 1976). Admiring the imaginative costumes of the kids out trick-or-treating this past week, I thought about the fascination of pretending to be someone else. A wonderful game when you’re a child, that often becomes a more serious game in fiction.

For many of the characters in “Secrets of a Lady” masquerading is second nature. Mélanie’s whole life has been a masquerade for so many years she isn’t sure who she is anymore (“Charles had accused her of lying for so long that she couldn’t know herself anymore, and he’d been more accurate than she cared to admit”). In the course of the book, she and Charles tell different stories and play different parts with the different people they approach for information. One of the people they encounter, Hugo Trevennen, is an actor who still lives his life changing from character to character even in the confines of hte Marshalsea prison. His niece Helen Trevennen, who holds to the key to the mystery of the Carevalo Ring, has changed her identity more than once, just as Mélanie has.

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I had lunch with a group of friends on Saturday. We spent a wonderful afternoon eating delicious food and talking about books and television shows and favorite examples of story-telling in both. We discussed a number of writers and tv series, but our talk kept coming back to the writer who is the reason we all met. We got to know each other through a list serv that discusses the novels of Dorothy Dunnett.

I first discovered Dorothy Dunnett’s books the summer between high school and college. I picked up “The Game of Kings”, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, and spent a couple of days curled up on the sofa, glued to the page. I promptly devoured the rest of the six volume series. I told my mother she had to read them. It took her a bit of time to get into “The Game of Kings”, but soon she was as hooked as I was.

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