Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dorothy Dunnett's RACE OF SCORPIONS

I cannot tell a lie, Race of Scorpions almost lost me as a member of Team Claes, but not for any reasons that I might have expected, even back when I first tossed the first House of Niccolo book onto the DNF pile as a teenager. There is, after all, still plenty of intrigue, plenty of buckles being swashed, and plenty of mercantile maneuvering -- all the things one reads a Dunnett book for. But...

But... Look, one of the things I'm liking best about the Niccolo books is that, while their hero is an unusually gifted young man, his gifts are not merely his by right of his pedigree (well, genetics, but I'm speaking socially here). He's a commoner (more or less), who has pulled himself up by his brainstraps and is out-thinking and out-planning everybody else as he makes his fortune, despite considerable setbacks and obstacles that are mostly attributable to, yes, his pedigree in that his blood relatives all seem hell-bent on crushing him. He keeps turning their tricks and traps back on them, though, does Claes, in ingenious and subtle, and often hilarious, ways, which is what makes him such fun to read about.

Alas, in his third novel, his talents are beginning to be noticed. So while last novel did see him meddling in the affairs of the imperial family of Trebizond, this was neither his goal nor theirs; his schemes and ambitions drew them somewhat organically into their orbit, and his deeds, especially his feud with his family's chosen agent of his destruction, spilled over and may well have affected the course of history as he witnessed -- and maybe assisted in -- the end of the Byzantine Empire's last gasping outpost. Pretty cool.

This time, though, it's all much more deliberate. The warring royal siblings of Cyprus* have both decided that he and his mercenary company are exactly what each of them needs to kick the other off the island and consolidate power under one crowned head. Carlotta, only legitimate child of the last King of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia, waylays our boy early on and tries to hire him, and, when that doesn't work, manages to sic an irresistible courtesan on him by way of (unsuccessfully) manipulating him into agreeing after all. But then James, her illegitimate half-brother (whose courtesan mother Carlotta's royal one had de-nosified to spoil her looks, because that's what royal jackwagons, male and female, do to one another when there is no higher authority than their own bitchy wills) goes her one better and just pays the Venetians to kidnap Claes and drag him to Cyprus under the assumption that once there Claes will be just so overawed by James' personal magnetism and general awesomeness that he'll all but beg to fight for James, er, once he's over all the stiffness and bruising and whatnot from his abduction anyway...

If it sounds like I don't like these royal jerks, well, good. I don't. And so this was a frustrating read for me, because, while Claes still winds up getting the better of them (sort of) (but at tremendous personal cost, of course), it's not in the kind of super satisfying way I was expecting. Claes, for all his wiliness, is still kind of passive, and while yes, he has to tread very carefully since both royals just sort of assume they have his loyalty and aren't in the mood for any displays of agency or free will on his part, there's still not much of Claes in this Claes story -- even though he's present on pretty much every page -- nor does the larger Team Claes feel as vivid or colorful as I've come to expect them to be. Can it just be the absence of the notary/attorney duo of Julius (left behind in Bruges to manage the Charetty company for the now-orphaned Charetty daughters) and Gregorio (running Claes' bank in Italy) that leaves the crew seeming so pallid? But then it's gotten a new member or two from the last novel, and John LeGrand and Mick Crackbene are pretty interesting chaps who can more than hold their own with Tobie and Astorre and Lope.

So I'm at a loss to finally explain why I didn't like this novel more. Except to say that no, I don't like royalty. Which, that's no real surprise, is it?

*Cyprus! As in even more exotic and romantic a locale than Trebizond! Birthplace of Venus! Next to Rhodes and Crete! A storied and magical island is Cyprus. Except, apparently, in this novel. Ho hum.


  1. This was the weakest of the series (so far! Still have 2 to go). Mostly because I found the pace slower than usual. There was a point there when I was almost got (the blasphemy!) bored. But then the moth scene happened and it restored my faith in DD all over again.

    My thoughts:

  2. maybe as a mere male, I don't drool/fantasize over DD's Heroes, AND I am not a royalist, but I like how Niccolo 'coped' with fortune and infamy ( well FFJ had it in for me). The 'Naxettes' don't get a mention or TGWTWL, both remarked upon in WG. Mike Brain.

  3. There much I liked about RoS but in my first read of the series I was getting antsy at this point. I mentioned in an earlier comment that the series' was structured with what appears to be a 3-part prologue. The first three books, especially SoTR and RoS, put Claes in an enclosed world, an isolated environment, a petri dish, where he can learn some hard lessons and wriggle out of an impossible situation. He is not yet large enough to wrestle with kings and best them -- the most he can get right now is an uneasy draw.

    I assure you that all the lessons Claes has learned in Bruges, in Trebizond and in Cyprus, come to bear when he re-enters the great world at large, which starts with Scales of Gold, still probably my favorite overall book in the series.

    Upon re-reads, I enjoyed RoS much more on its own merits -- The Naxos sisters, the moth scene, Famagusta, the seductive violence of Zacco. I even loved the opening sugar/snow ploy. I agree that as you are getting through this for the first time, you must be impatient for Claes to start showing something more for all this troubles.


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