No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, September 08, 2011

2011/41-48: The House of Niccolo -- Dorothy Dunnett

From Venice to Cathay, from Seville to the Gold Coast of Africa, men anchored their ships and opened their ledgers and weighed one thing against another as if nothing would ever change. Or as if there existed no sort of fool, of either sex, who might one day treat trade (trade!) as an amusement. [Niccolo Rising, opening]

I first read Niccolo Rising while I was home for my mother's funeral, in 1986. I read each of the subsequent seven volumes as they were published, culminating with Gemini in late 2000.

Recently I reread the whole sequence in 8 days. [Unemployment and insalubrious weather have their advantages.]

The 'House of Niccolo' sequence -- even more than the Lymond books -- forms a single narrative, and given Dunnett's love for detail, for obscure connections and playful puzzles, it made absolute sense to read them as a single, multi-part novel. There's a great deal I didn't pick up when I first read the novels. I don't think I ever attempted a reread of the series to date before leaping upon the newest and devouring it in a couple of days.

It's intriguing to note what I remembered and what I'd forgotten. I had, fortuitously, forgotten the precise details of who the major villain was, and why. I'd forgotten deaths, births, marriages and revelations. I'd forgotten the circumstances of Nicholas' birth; I don't think I'd ever recognised exactly what befell him at Tzani-Bey's hands in Race of Scorpions. (I did remember the cats.)

Nicholas is an interesting protagonist because he remembers everything he reads or hears. Everything. That, coupled with an innate talent for music and mathematics, propels him from lowly apprentice to wealthy merchant. I find Nicholas more credible a hero than Lymond: he's certainly less neurotic, and more resilient. And he's considerably less heroic.

Dunnett's descriptive passages still delight me: she has an eye for local light, the way the sun hits a mountain-face, the way light reflects from a canal or bonfire-glow illuminates a snowscape. I'd forgotten just how visceral some of her battle-scenes are. And her dialogue -- often hilarious, generally witty and drenched in characterisation -- remains exemplary. (Mary Doria Russell describes Dunnett as 'a masterclass in dialogue'.)

I don't think the Niccolo books are as well-constructed as the Lymond sequence: there's a distinct falling-off in quality after Scales of Gold, and far too many pages of political history. That history does inform and affect the lives of the characters, but does it need to be so foregrounded?

And there's something rather frantic about the gathering-up of loose threads, the forcing of congruence, in Gemini. I can't decide whether she was teasing her considerable fanbase (she'd already promised that the end of the Niccolo sequence would tie into the Lymond books) or whether she felt that she was running out of time and had to pull everything together, smoothly or otherwise. I'm exasperated by a revelation that depends on the author deliberately referring to a character as 'So-and-so of such-a-place' rather than by surname, or to another character solely by his baby-name.

I am also not comfortable with the supernatural / psychic elements, which are considerably more heavy-handed here than in the Lymond books.

And I am not wholly convinced that there are sufficient clues to identify the villain who's been on the scene from the first book. There are quite a few; but I don't think they're sufficiently damning, or unique to that individual.

And, and ... yes, I have quite a few quibbles and questions and doubts and criticisms. Whose line is to be continued? Why? Does nature trump nurture? Who is that mystery woman in the convent? Is Lady Dunnett really weaving in threads from King Hereafter, her novel about the historical Macbeth?

That said: I adore these books, despite occasional lapses and the sheer misery of much of The Unicorn Hunt and To Lie with Lions (misery from a couple of characters' viewpoints, not overall). I like Nicholas; I marvel at Dunnett's evocation of the fifteenth century, from Icelandic fishing-ports to Mount Sinai, Danzig to Timbuktu. I'm fascinated by the way she weaves history, and historical personages, into her tapestry. And above all I'm awed by the way that even minor characters come to life (and, frequently, to death) on the page, regardless of race or creed or age.

I look forward to knowing this series as well as I know the Lymond Chronicles. At least there's less poetry ...

From Venice to Caffa, from Antwerp to the Gold Coast of Africa, merchants anchored their ships and unloaded their cannon and flipped open their ledgers as if in twenty years nothing had changed, and nothing was about to change now. As if old men did not die, or younger ones grow up, eventually. There was no fool in Europe, these days, who treated trade as a joke. All that sort were long sobered, or dead. [Gemini, opening]


  1. Theodora11:08 pm

    Thank you for your essay. I too read them from the beginning, as each one came out, but I also continually reread the series over the years, as they accumulated. A month or so I finished reading all the books again, and it would have been the 8-9th time for the early ones, and the third time for Gemini. And yes, you must believe, that I am STILL seeing new things in those books. I haven't been able to get started with the Lymond Chronicles yet because I cannot let go of the Nicholas books.

  2. Terrific post about the powerful pull of the Niccolo series. Perhaps during your first read you were racing through the books, frantically, to find out what happened next and you simply couldn't absorb all the plot points. That was my experience anyway. Time for me to start again.