Saturday, June 10, 2017

Dorothy Dunnett's SCALES OF GOLD

Oh, Niccolo, Niccolo, Nicollo. It's been too long since I followed your adventures. So long that I had to catch up again by listening to all of the books I'd already read as audio books*

There is a stinger of a surprise ending to Scales of Gold, the fourth in the House of Niccolo series, that threatens to blot all that comes before it from memory. I'm not going to give away that ending, because it's a doozy, but in so resolving, I'm making this a harder blog entry for myself.

The machinations of Niccolo's enemies (his very estranged supposed father and grandfather, and the rival mercantile house, the Vatochino, chief among them) have left Team Niccolo cash poor but rich in responsibilities, so the need becomes immediately evident that the gang needs money. Hard money. The very hardest. And where, before the New World ripened for the plundering, did gold come from?

Africa. And where does Niccolo's best friend and maybe sometime lover (last novel the King of Cyprus said sooner or later Niccolo would either have to send him away or make him his lover), Loppe the polyglot omnitalented African, a former slave who has mentioned betimes that it would be swell if he could go home and show Niccolo the sights and they could maybe get some gold...

But meanwhile, other fallout from Niccolo's previous adventures is falling out. His maybe-father, Simon de St. Pol, has a sister, who had a Portuguese husband that died last novel (and of course some people blame Niccolo, but we know the truth), leaving behind a young son and half of a trading company (Simon owns the other half, dun dun DUUUUUNNNN), and it, too, is on the brink of failure, but Niccolo has a plan to maybe save it and blah blah blah everybody is on the island of Madeira (not yet famous for its wines) but oh, they're too late -- Simon has been there and decided to sell off his half of the company to... The Vatochino! His sister and nephew will be destitute, unless Niccolo and Loppe can save the day!

But wait, they don't think they're going alone, do they? Because no. The nephew, Diniz Vasquez, must go with them. And so must... Oh jeez. So must one Bel of Cuthilgurdy, Simon's sister Lucia's best friend and traveling companion**, and also... Gelis van Borsalen. Last seen as Katelina van Borsalen's bratty little sister back in Niccolo Rising. She's all grown up now, as attractive as her late sister, and pretty damned sure that, whatever the official ruling, Katelina's death is also Niccolo's fault. And she's not going to give him any peace, going to follow him wherever he goes like a buxom young Fury.

Many of Niccolo's other friends are involved in this venture as well, but the significant one aside from those already named is Father Godscalc, originally the house chaplain to the Charetty Company (Niccolo's original employer as well, whose widowed owner he married by way of positioning him to help her to expand its scope and get him a good start in business in his own right, and from which he wound up inheriting many excellent advisers, partners and helpers, some of whom are keepers of various of his secrets and some of whom can barely stand him and some of whom are just in it for the money. Of these, Godscalc is one of the secret keepers, of course), who also wants to go to Africa, but not for gold; he wants to find a land route from the continent's western coast to Ethiopia, believed to be the true home of that legendary Christian king, Prester John. Goldscalc envisions a great evangelical pilgrimage to Prester John's kingdom, saving souls and making converts all the way, and securing from that great king a pledge of money and manpower to help save the rest of Christendom from the Turk. Niccolo, Niccolo kind of owes him one.

But so, adventures. Lots and lots of adventures, including an entertaining sea battle on the way from Madeira to the mouth of the Gambia, in which a ship that Niccolo was given by Emperor of David of Trebizond back in The Spring of the Ram but was originally owned by, you got it, Simon, must attack a ship sailed by the Vatochino without being recognized as both companies race for the gold. Whoever gets there first has the upper hand in contacting the natives and making the deals for that season's haul.

But all of that's just preamble. The heart of this novel is in, that's right, Timbuktu, a city of clay and mud that dissolves when it rains, only to be built again because it is a city of scholars, holy men and entrepreneurs, and its position makes it the crossroads for much of western Africa's commerce circa the 15th century. Everybody in Niccolo's party has something to learn there, as well as things to acquire (like copies of scrolls from the impressive libraries repositories of Timbuktu). The interlude here is as lovely as anything Dunnett has written, and as satisfying. But Dunnett is never satisfied merely with being satisfied, and Prester John beckons.

A lot of people point to this novel as a turning point in Niccolo's development as a man and a character, and they are right to. Up to this point he has been largely passive and protean, exercising his talents in mostly hidden ways, often only when others have forced him to. Here he finally takes his fate and that of others deliberately into his hands, realizes he is an adult and that his life doesn't have to be solely one of avenging the circumstances of his irregular birth. He leaves Africa interested in finding for himself the pleasures of family life, which he has tasted with the Charetty company -- his late wife had two nearly-grown daughters who eventually came around to being okay with having a stepdad just a few years older than they -- but now wants for real. And now I'm not going to say anymore about that because it's all tied up in the twist ending, a real emotional cliffhanger that had me plunging straight into the next novel, the Unicorn Hunt.

Dorothy, Dorothy, Dorothy!

*Which, these are pretty good, but I could have done without all of the accents, especially on the female characters. Most male narrators don't do female voices well anyway and really shouldn't even try, but they sound much worse when they're also given comic Italian or Flemish or Greekish accents.

**Which, get ready for Bel. She's late middle aged, fat, Scottish, fiercely intelligent, stubborn and altogether awesome. She may be my favorite Dorothy Dunnett character yet. I love her so much I had to consult the oracle of internets to make sure she appears in later books, because if she got killed off (spoiler: not in this novel) I was going to be very, very angry.


  1. I am rereading House of Niccolo, heavy on the highlighter, trying to identify foreshadowing and foreboding. Thanks for this review!

  2. One of my all-time favorite series. Dorothy Dunnett was a genius.


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