Thursday, March 11, 2010

Niccolo Rising - Dorothy Dunnett

niccolo rising
dorothy dunnet
c. 1986
470 pages
completed 3/10/2010

read for: reading western europe challenge

*may contain spoilers*

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.

Claes vander Poele, a lowly dyers apprentice and bastard, has a knack for getting into and out of the most outrageous mischief, whether that be in the form of seducing serving wenches or causing avalanches in the Alps. With a reputation as a lovable, good natured trouble maker, Claes hides his ambition and his cunning, and bides his time while laying the groundwork for a magnificent rise in society in fifteenth century Bruges. Claes makes some influential friends and alliances during his rise, but also manages to make some extremely powerful enemies. Ending while Claes is still barely twenty, Niccolo Rising marks the beginning of the House of Niccolo Saga.

First off, I am using this book to count as my Belgium book for the Reading Western Europe challenge. I realize Belgium was not really a country at this time. BUT, Bruges was there and is still there (same name and everything) so I say it should count.

I am going to be honest and say there were several elements to this book that I did not understand, mostly involving politics. There is a LOT going on politically: the war between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians in England, major conflict between the King of France and the Dauphin who is living in exile, war between England and Scotland. Plus I don't totally know what other places belong to what country. Was Flanders a part of France or its own country? And what about all the areas of Italy? Italy wasn't unified yet, so were all these areas separate countries? So I didn't always know who I was for and who I was against. And that was before we added in the big merchant companies who were backing different leaders as well as dealing with their own internal politics. Plus there were seriously hundreds of characters: Flemings, Venetians, Scotsmen, Greeks, etc. There were literally five pages of listed characters at the start of the book. So needless to say, there was a lot to keep track of. I was often a little confused. Which made for extreme slow going. I know it sounds like I'm complaining, but really I'm not. Just giving anyone else who plans on tackling this book fair warning. Not for the faint of heart!

But despite its complexities, I never felt bogged down. Almost every other page Occasionally I had to refer back to the character list to make sure I knew who was connected to who, but the action never dragged. Claes constantly kept moving and kept getting into trouble. There was a lot of humor in Claes' relationships with his friends Felix and Julius and in the trouble they would find so the action was never too dry. And there were a lot of surprises, especially as more and more of Claes' character emerged. In keeping with my theme of complexity, the characters were equal to the plot. Claes especially, as the hero of the series, grows considerably from a good-natured rogue to a shrewd, calculating prodigy of business and diplomacy. Even by the end of the book it's impossible to understand all of his motives and methods. Probably why there are several more installments to the series.

To sum up, I am super excited that I stumbled upon this series and am eagerly awaiting the time when I can read the rest. This novel has also made me realize how woefully lacking is my knowledge of the history and geography of this period.



Aarti said...

I read the Niccolo series about four or five years ago, I think. I found it even harder to follow than the Lymond series (which is saying a lot). But I also really liked it! I think Claes is a fascinating character. I also find Gelis fascinating. But that's all I'll say for now- look forward to seeing you discovering the rest of this series!

PS- As to the political stuff going on... er, I admit I basically ignored stuff I didn't understand and just kept going.

Veronica said...

Aarti, I haven't read any of the Lymond series either, but if I continue to enjoy the Niccolo series so much I may have to. But you're right, even though it was difficult to follow I still really enjoyed it and as I kept reading the politics became a little bit clearer. Maybe by the end of the series I'll have it all down.

nat @book, line, and sinker said...

sounds like this novel is quite the education!! i couldn't even figure out how to pronounce the main character's name.

i'm the type of person who can't stand being in the dark about historical references so this might not be the best book for me. better wait until i brush up on my european history.

glad you made it through--470 pages is a virtual chunkster in my book.

Veronica said...

Nat, to be honest it's highly likely I pronounce it wrong, too. But if it helps it is supposed to be short for Nicholas.

And you're right, it's very informative about the era but I did still struggle because I didn't know much of the politics or history. So if that's something that bothers you when you read, research may have to be done to really enjoy the book.

All that being said, I still enjoyed it a great deal. The story was extremely entertaining.