Gemini is the eighth and last book in Dorothy Dunnett's second series, "The House of Niccolò." When it was published in 2000, I read the Michael Joseph UK edition, specially ordered from an Edinburgh bookseller, because like a lot of us in the US I didn't want to wait for the North American edition.
I'm not sure I've read it again since then.
The Nicholas books were my introduction to Dorothy Dunnett. Almost 30 years ago, I came across the first book, Niccolò Rising, in the library. The cover images from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry caught my eye, because I had studied and fallen in love with medieval art in college. I was fascinated with the story inside, of the young apprentice Claes, who takes his mistress's dye-yard business into a much larger world of trade and finance - and espionage. I loved the setting of 15th-century Bruges, like seeing a Van Eyck painting come to life. I enjoyed the journeys that take Claes (later Nicholas) beyond Flanders, to Geneva and Florence and Lorraine. And then there are the family complications. Claes, raised in the Charetty family, is known to be the son of the late Sophie de Fleury, but her husband's family, the St Pols of Scotland and France, have always rejected Claes as a bastard, not the son of her husband Simon. His position, as a bastard, an apprentice stinking of the dye-yard, makes his rise in this story all the more compelling.
I think Niccolò Rising is one of Dorothy Dunnett's best books, with King Hereafter, her novel of Macbeth. I've read it countless times, as well as the second in the series, The Spring of the Ram, which follows Nicholas to the court of the Byzantine Emperor in Trebizond. There is a tragedy at the end of the second book, though, that shook me when I first read it, and I did not then continue with the series. It was only after I was introduced to (and became obsessed with) Francis Crawford of Lymond and his story that I came back to the Nicholas books (set earlier but published later).
A main focus of this second series is the international business that Nicholas builds, on finance and trade and an excellent mercenary company. He gathers a company of men and women, drawn to him by his personality, his gifts, his genius (for trade, for sailing, for music). There are others, rivals in business, and the competition between them is intense, sometimes violent. His encounters with the St Pol family are always fraught, to say the least.
There is so much packed into these stories, as they move between trade and war, across Europe, to Africa and Egypt. They are full of the politics of the different countries where Nicholas's company trades, into which he is sometimes drawn. The complicated stories, the masses of detail, can be overwhelming at times. But where I struggle with some of the later books is with the personal. The men and women around Nicholas, who form a kind of surrogate family, have high expectations of him, and they make demands on him. Nicholas often thinks of them as his nurses, or his keepers. They constrain him, and all too often they misjudge him. They see part of his complicated family history, they see his actions, they make assumptions, and they get angry with him. We the readers know the truth, know more of the story than they do, and it's clear to us where they are wrong, unfair, misguided. Nicholas often takes the blame for things that are not his fault, with punishing consequences. It is true that he doesn't always explain himself, though we see much more of his mind and heart that we do of Lymond. And he does make mistakes, he does things wrong, often with great deliberation. But unlike his companions I can't fault him for guarding his privacy, and their self-righteous judgements grate on me. There is also one particular feud, a war carried out over more than eight years, based on a completely wrong premise. I realize this may sound ridiculous, but I get so irritated on Nicholas's behalf that I have trouble with the later books.
Which is why I may have only read Gemini one time. I clearly remember, the last time I read the series, holding out to the seventh book, Caprice and Rondo, and then giving up.
The other day, I was thinking of an incident in Caprice and Rondo ("Date stones, sweetheart!"), which happens toward the end of the book. When I went to check it, I ended up reading the last chapters, and then I picked up Gemini, to look at the first chapter. And then there I was, reading Gemini again. It felt wrong, on one level, because I am normally a strict series-order reader. But how quickly I fell back under Dorothy Dunnett's spell. And how lovely it was to see the end of Nicholas's story. I know its beginnings so well, from umpteen readings of the first two books. Here she brings it to a very satisfying conclusion, answering questions and tying loose ends together, and ending feuds. One character in particular is completely redeemed, in my mind. Of course, being Dorothy Dunnett, she puts her people through hell in the process.
About half-way through the book (which is more than 600 pages), I had the heretical (to me) idea of reading the series in reverse. One of the great pleasures in the series in seeing Nicholas grow and develop and expand. It's a crucial difference between this series and the Lymond Chronicles. There we meet Francis Crawford, only a few years older than the Claes of the first book, but fully developed, fully mature. Nicholas we see becoming. His story is also more complicated, and for me, it's a challenge to keep all of the plot lines (even the personal ones) straight, much more so than with Lymond. I think reading backward might help with that.
And besides, I've fallen again under that familiar spell. When in its grip, no other stories will satisfy. So here I am, surrounded by expiring library books and tottering TBR piles, deep in 15th-century Poland with Nicholas.