Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dorothy Dunnett's THE SPRING OF THE RAM

The Spring of the Ram, volume two of the great Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series of Renaissance mercantile thrillers, raises the stakes for my man Claes (now usually called Nicholas) in every possible way: he travels further, has a bigger impact on world events, acquires a ridiculous new frienemy (because Claes needed more enemies, didn't he?), and gets to learn what he really got himself into when he married Marian de Charetty the owner of the company that once employed him as an apprentice dyer.

At the end of Claes' first novel, Niccolò Rising, it was decided that he needed to broaden his horizons a bit more, by way of getting him away from Simon de St. Pol, murderous Scottish pretty boy and and Claes' unwilling stepfather.* And since Claes has manifested as a Business Genius, how better to get him away from Simon's sphere of influence than sending him on a trading voyage to the fabulous Levant?

Having secured the friendship and patronage of no less a figure than Cosimo de Medici, Claes is eastbound in a galley bought on credit to serve as Florence's consul in the empire of Trebizond -- the last remnant of the Byzantine empire, now surrounded on all sides by Ottomans and Turcomen and perpetually asking for rescue from their cranky and wrong-headed brothers in Christ, the Roman Catholic Church and its adherents. While some blustering friar types are perpetually trying to bestir the crowned heads of Europe to stop fighting each other and go save the Holy Land, Claes and the Medici see an opportunity to profit from the real situation: Trebizond is too decadent and ritual-bound to have ever bothered raising much of an army, but Trebizond has pearls and silk and dyestuffs coming through it from Asia all the time and can pay other people to be that army. Other people like Team Claes.

This all would be enough for most writers, but Dunnett has to make things more ridiculous and exciting. Enter Pagano Doria, who looks at first simply to be Claes' Genoese counterpart but has a lot more going on than that. Before we can say Lolita -- and, really, before Claes has even left his wife behind in Bruges -- Pagano has seduced Claes' younger stepdaughter Catherine and convinced her to come away with him to be his wife, even though she's only twelve years old. Talk about unruly tweens! Of course he has designs beyond her cute pre-pubescent person; she's heir to half the Charetty Company, and thus stands to make her husband very rich some day. And that's just the beginning of Pagano's perfidy.

Racing to Trebizond, Claes and Pagano duke it out, Renaissance style, with Pagano scoring most of the points. Uh oh. We all know by now what happens, eventually, to people who get on Claes' bad side, don't we?

The fun continues in Trebizond, where the rivals continue to mess with each other against the exotic backdrop of Hellenic Christendom's last imperial gasp -- and they're really just in time for the very last gasp. Dunnett doesn't go so far as to make the Fall of Trebizond Claes' fault, but the plot she weaves here proposes some interesting possibilities, and once again highlights the importance of mercantile adventurers like Claes and Pagano to world affairs. Kings and Queens are more glamorous and bitchy, but it's the guys who move the merchandise that really make things happen while the royals are off hawking or parading around in the silks and pearls the "sea princes" bring back from their travels -- and sometimes, it's the secrets those merchants keep that really make the difference. Here Claes' deal struck with Venice in the first novel -- to keep secret the discovery of a rich alum deposit in the Papal States and thus protect a monopoly -- may have hastened, if not in a way caused, the Fall of Trebizond. Had the Pope known about the alum in his own backyard, he could have mined and sold it and financed a Crusade. Instead, Europe kept on squabbling, and the last Byzantine emperor took the payoff the Ottomans offered and let them have his city. The conspiracy of alum silence needn't have been true for history to have happened the way it did, but it's a fantastically clever and subtle way to weave Claes' story into real world events -- and to load yet more guilt onto his conscience, make him seem possibly more of a monster.

For monster Claes is -- devastatingly intelligent, personable, patient, humble, and an epic holder, it would seem, of grudges. The members of Team Claes -- Loppe the freed African slave who is is household manager, Julius the Charetty Company lawyer/notary who basically helped raise Claes, Tobie the physician, and Father Godscalc the burly priest -- are neither trusting nor trusted but loyal all the same, because they know Claes can make them all rich, and because Claes keeps life very, very interesting.

On to the next novel, despite this one's actually quite icky (and sad) ending.

*As in, Claes is the son of Simon's first wife, but was probably begotten by a servant. And there are other ugly familial entanglements afoot between them, but I'm trying not to be too spoilery. I'll just say that it looks like one way or another that unnamed servant is the new St. Pol ancestor.


  1. This was one of the best of the series so far (still missing the last two), only surpassed by the AMAZING Scales of Gold. You have a treat ahead of you!

  2. nice review, should encourage new readers. I have yet to persuade ANYONE in my own family despite taking my wife on vacations ''in the footsteps of FC and Nic, and dragging her along to DD's Gatherings' in Edinburgh, and more lately the ROSL AGM. ( ex mystery man)

    1. Wow, stubborn wife! Here's hoping someday she at least reads them in secret so she doesn't miss out 8)


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