The Unicorn Hunt

by Dorothy Dunnett

Reviewed by David Maclaine

At the beginning of The Unicorn Hunt the former apprentice named Claus, who has used his genius and enterprise to rise to great wealth, finds himself reeling from a shocking betrayal. He soon discovers that he is at war with a new enemy wielding an unexpected weapon against him. Old enemies lurk too, and the young man now usually known as Nicholas, must engage in life-or-death struggles in varied landscapes from one end to another of the changing Western World of the fifteenth century: hand-hand-combat on a salt pan in Scotland, treacherous assaults during a hunt high in the mountains of Tyrol, torture in a Cairo dungeon during the ceremony of unleashing the Nile’s floodwaters, and a fateful confrontation on a holy mountain in the Sinai wilderness. To tell more about the hero’s itinerary would be to give away too many of Dunnett’s elaborate twists and sharp surprises. Among the latter is the discovery by Nicholas of a strange new power at his disposal, one that will play a crucial role in a quest that soon comes to consume him.

As in the four previous volumes of her astonishing saga of the House of Niccolo Dunnett offers a rich texture of allusion and inference reminiscent of such demanding writers of literary fiction as Joyce and Nabokov. Her novels are not for those who wish to be carried along on an easy ride with all the modern conveniences. They are in fact more like the rigorous routes her hero traces across a still-untamed world, where guides may prove faithless, pathways are uncertain, and alertness to every detail is the key to success. But as with so many journeys that impose serious demands, the rewards of a successful venture are made richer by the extra investment of effort. The Unicorn Hunt is another splendid stage in Dunnett’s dazzling tour of a world on the brink of transformation, as refracted by a brilliant and beautiful mind. (1993, 656 pages)

More about The Unicorn Hunt at Powell's Books or

Other historical novels about world travelers:

The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone (2000), about an eleventh-century Viking woman whose journeys take her to Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Rome and Vinland. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies (2009), about a thirteenth-century Sicilian expedition to China. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover (2008), about a sixteenth-century Venetian Jew who travels to Pegu (now Burma or Myanmar). See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about Renaissance merchants:

The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 1350-1750 by James D. Tracy. More info

To Wake the Dead: A Renaissance Merchant and the Birth of Archaeology by Marina Belozerskaya (2009). More info

The Silk Road in World History by Xinru Liu (2010). More info


Salt Manufacture, about the old Scottish salt pans, at the website for Bo'ness, Scotland

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