Sunday, December 8, 2013

Dorothy Dunnet's NICCOLO RISING

O Claes van der Poel, O Nicolas de St. Pol, O Niccolò, where have you been all my life. Actually, that's a pretty funny question, because as I believe I have previously shared via these pixels, this is not my first time taking up Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolò Rising, the first volume in her even-bigger-at-least-because-more-books-than-Lymond series, The House of Niccolò.

This was a total DNF when I was 16 or so, despite the hilarity of its famous opening three-men-in-a-tub caper, in which our hero, whom I shall refer to simply as Claes because I like that name and that's how he wants people to keep thinking of him through this first novel -- I'll get to that bit in a moment -- his young master Felix de Charetty and "their" tutor Julius hitch a ride in the Duke of Burgundy's bathtub as it is being floated into the great city of Bruges and things go ridiculously wrong and Chekov's cannon* gets accidentally (?) dumped into the canal. Yes! That bit definitely hooked 16-year-old Kate, but the stuff that followed made her eyes glaze over, for while later in the book there are quite a few Shouty Men in Shiny Armour, until those moments it's a lot of early-Renaissance business drama, which try convincing any 16-year-old (except maybe Alex P. Keaton) that the words "business" and "drama" can even go together, go on, I dare you.

Considerably older Kate, though, relatively fresh off the Lymond Chronicles and considerably more attuned to the importance of trade to cultural development and thus to the notion that there can be drama in mercantile doings, found Niccolò Rising to be even more fun than those loftily beloved books, mostly because its hero is more fun. SO much more fun. Not to bag on Lymond, whose adventures and plots and subtleties I heartily enjoyed right up until he made me want to slap him silly in his last volume, but Claes, Claes, Claes!

Though things are revealed about his ancestry towards the end of Niccolò Rising that made me roll my eyes a little because I'm no great respecter of aristocracy and all of the crap ideas that surround it (if you haven't noticed, I tend to root against the queens when I read Jean Plaidy), Claes is poised to become my favorite literary hero, maybe ever. Raised as a dyer's apprentice (which, in 15th century Europe means stained fingers, weird chemical odors and oh yes pretty much the constant smell of urine) and looking like a big dumb lout with absurdly huge round eyes, ridiculous dimples and a profoundly innocent and dopey expression, he's a magnet for trouble and cheerfully accepts all the beatings that seem to be the wages of all of his escapades -- which, yes, include sleeping with girls he shouldn't sleep with along with dumb accidents (?) like the men-in-a-tub/cannon-in-the-canal stunt that opens the novel.


About those escapades. Those who have come to know Claes (short for Nicolas) well have begun to notice things about his pranks and the way things happen in general when he's around. The remarkable woman who owns the Charetty Company (of which the dye works is but one subsidiary), Marian de Charetty, widowed mother of Felix, for instance, agrees with Julius that Claes is maybe smarter than everybody gives him credit for. He only seems passive, does Claes...

Bit of an understatement, that. Before much ink has been consumed in describing his world -- and an unhappy incident involving a serving wench whom an unpleasant Scottish nobleman (who was also present for the tub/cannon affair) had thought was only servicing his noble self  -- he is busy, busy, busy in his head, working out an elaborate scheme to capitalize on a bit of possibly throwaway information a famous Greek prince of industry let slip in Claes' presence concerning a non-Ottoman source of alum, a mineral compound vitally important to many industrial/chemical processes like making dye stick to fabric and thus a vital raw material for his mistress' business. And also military adventure! Except the military adventure is for other people; the Charetty's should just hire and equip them and rent them out to various Italian noblemen fighting over all those wacky things Italian noblemen fought over in the 15th century. And how these two things -- alum and mercenaries -- might come together in one grand coup that might just lift Claes out of the piss vats and into the bourgeoisie.

But again, this is a guy whom nobody takes seriously, except for the Widow and her notary/Felix's tutor. So he has to finesse. Without giving away the fact that he's actually a mathematical/mercantile genius, because being underestimated is his favorite strategy, and not rubbing it in when people realize what brilliance he's pulled off but instead staying humble and passive is his best tactic. Or something like that.

So Claes is someone who could either be seen as a manipulative mastermind who is out to deceive and revenge himself on everybody who ever sneered at him or ordered him beaten, or as a genuinely nice and loving guy who innocently comes up with a lot of really cool ideas that just happen to have staggering worldwide repercussions and make him some epic enemies in the process (his companions have a big long discussion about which version of Claes (whom they start calling Nicolas as his stature elevates, and whom the Italians with whom he has started dealing with on surprisingly high levels insist on calling Niccolò) is the "real" one. They conclude it's best to hope for the latter but be ready for the former as Claes' first round of jaw-droppingly intricate and mostly-successful (ah, but the successes are always bittersweet) schemes come to fruition and he and the Charettys prepare to embark on a brand new round on an even grander scale in the next novel, Spring of the Ram, which I think I'll be reading soon because I AM SO TEAM CLAES YOU GUYS. He's like Lymond, only not at all pretentious and not nearly so self-important (because he's not a nobleman, perhaps?) and he's having to make it on guts and smarts and sheer merit alone...!

People who find this series a let down after Lymond... I don't think I understand them, at all.


  1. Um, yes. Toldja so.

    As good as NR is, the whole series feels like it has a three-book prologue. Both SOTR and ROS feel somewhat self-contained, as they take place in geographically isolated place, and Claes' communication with the rest of the world is slower. This allows the hero (?) to develop in sort of petrie dishes. One you hit book 4 (the magnificent SCALES OF GOLD) you will be astounded at what DD has pulled off.

    There are two things I would tip you off to, to avoid some disappointment later. Like Lymond, there is a whole bunch of folderol about Claes' ancestry/parentage. It takes up a lot of space, now and again, and like Lymond sometimes takes over the narrative. I found the whole thread, and especially the resolution, to be unsatisfactory and one of the things that disappointed me about the series. Not to take away from how much I truly love it, but be forewarned not to invest too much of your enjoyment on that part.

    The other similarity is, like Lymond, there is a plot thread involving supernatural or otherworldly forces. I truly disliked that in Lymond, the only real mis-step DD made (IMHO); in Niccolo, it still annoyed me, but it serves more of a plot purpose and is woven into the books more skillfully.

    (Also like Lymond, in the penultimate book, there is a period of emotional recovery in a really really cold place)

    Keep an eye out for when Niccolo passes through a location that Lymond will hit a hundred years later; he sometimes gets the sense of some emotional aura in that place. We dedicated readers call those moments Radio Free Lymond (RFL)

  2. Great Book. Love Nicholas. Much more interesting Im my opinion than Lymond !

  3. Yea for Team Claes, and a well written review ( not quite mentioning TGWTWL). Mike B

  4. Great review! I so love this series, and yeah, I'm Team Claes too. Keep up the good work and let us know what you make of the next book soon!

  5. Oh man, are you in for a ride! Scales of Gold is one of my favorite DD, a close race with Pawn.


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