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The fifth in Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series see Nicholas travelling to Scotland, the Tyrol and Egypt, dealing with the fallout from the events of the last few pages of Scales of Gold and pursuing feuds old and new. Like all of Dunnett's books, this is full of wonderful evocations of travel; it made me long to see the eastern Mediterrean and the Middle East for myself (and also reflect on the parallels between the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the late fifteenth century and the risk of Isis now). Plot-wise, it seemed to meander rather, with Nicholas and his companions pursuing an ill-defined quest, or possibly one only really understood by Nicholas and which, as readers, we haven't yet been given enough information to understand; I rather suspect that this book will make a lot more sense in the light of the last three books which I have yet to read. Character-wise, it's a delight; Nicholas himself is closed off and forbidding for at least the first half of the book (I think one difference between him and Lymond is that when Lymond appears to be behaving like a complete arse it's normally because he is following a complicated plan but still trying to do the right thing really. Nicholas is often doing it because he is actually not a nice person and doesn't want to do the right thing), but his colleagues and companions continue to grow and develop their personalities, and I particularly liked how many strong and powerful female characters there were.

I'm still not sure I really understand where Nicholas's story is going, but I'm definitely enjoying the ride.
white_hart: (Matilda)
The fourth of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo books takes the eponymous hero to Africa after the security of his business is threatened by a run on his capital instigated partly by his long-standing enemy Simon and partly by the shadowy Vatachino company. In search of the legendary gold-mines of Guinea and an overland route to the perhaps equally legendary Christian kingdom of Prester John in Ethiopia, after a difficult and dangerous journey he comes instead to Timbuktu*, ancient capital of learning and trade in a prosperous, mainly peaceful pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.

This was my favourite of the Niccolo books so far, and the first one I loved as much as I loved the Lymond series. Having recently read HMS Surprise, I really enjoyed the description of the voyage from Portugal to the Gambia in an age when Europeans had only recently discovered that Africa extended further south than Cape Bojador, slightly south of the latitude of the Canaries and for many years assumed to be the literal end of the world. I loved the depiction of fifteenth-century Africa as no less civilised than Europe, just different (and with surprisingly good communication links for the era), and Nicholas's perilous and uncertain journeys were utterly compelling reading. I found myself reading while walking down the street because I couldn't bear to put my Kindle down on more than one occasion.

Slightly spoilery for the end of the book. )

* I may have found myself at one point pondering whether it was possible to cast the party who make it to Timbuktu with the cast of Cabin Pressure, who of course never do get to Timbuktu. The description of Nicholas does make him sound rather like John Finnemore, and he certainly affects an Arthur Shappey-esque innocence on occasion.
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I'm still reading Dorothy Dunnett when I want comfort reading; not that her books are entirely comforting in themselves, given her penchant for throwing her heroes into one dire situation after another and piling misfortune on misfortune, but they're books I can lose myself in, and that's what I wanted this week. In the third book of the House of Niccolo series, Nicholas ends up in Cyprus, where both claimants to the disputed throne want him and his army to fight for them. There are battles and twists and romance; some plot threads from the earlier books are resolved, while others emerge.

I do feel as though I'm starting to get a bit of a handle on Nicholas's character, which I struggled with in the first couple of books. Even though long sections of the narrative are written from his point of view, unlike Lymond, where we only get a handful of scenes from Francis's point of view throughout the series, and those tend to be solitary action rather than introspection, I've found him harder to understand; perhaps because the amount of point-of-view time he gets is deceptive, and there's a lot of crucial stuff we don't see. With Lymond, the overarching mystery always seemed to be what had happened in the past to make him the way he was, but with Nicholas, I think it's more about what kind of a person he really is.
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The second of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo books takes her hero (now definitely Nicholas, rather than Claes, and leader rather than apprentice) on a trading mission to Trebizond in 1461. Having looked up Trebizond when I read The Towers of Trebizond, I knew from the start that this wasn't likely to be an entirely uneventful trip, as indeed it wasn't, featuring Dunnett's trademark twisting plots; sequences that had me turning the pages, unable to put the book down until I found out how Nicholas and his comrades would get out of the latest tight spot; and other sequences where her hero's dazzling audacity pulls off feats that are simultaneously amazing and hilarious. I think I must be getting used to Dunnett, though, as while I couldn't have begun to guess at how most of the plot twists would unravel, there is one unwelcome final turn I saw coming a long way off.

Having started to unravel the enigma that is Nicholas in the first book, this one gave a bit more insight into his own thought processes. Certainly more than we ever get of Lymond, though I do love the way the Lymond Chronicles pretty much never show scenes from Lymond's point of view; saying that, I'm not sure how trustworthy Nicholas is as a viewpoint character. Several supporting characters also return and are further developed, and I felt that the cast of this series were really starting to come alive. Also, it reminded me how much I love Dunnett's women, who manage to be tough and independent while never feeling as though they are modern characters dressed up in historical costumes.

I'm definitely warming to the series after being a bit lukewarm on the first book, and look forward to moving on to the next one soon.
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I decided that what I needed was a comfort read, by which I don't mean fluff. I don't find fluff particularly comforting; it doesn't occupy enough of my brain to drive away the fear and anxiety. What I want in a comfort read is something engaging and entertaining, with vividly drawn characters and a plot that catches my interest. What I really wanted was another Lymond book, but having read the last one a few months ago I decided to start on Dunnett's House of Niccolo sequence instead.

Niccolo Rising is a slower burner than The Game of Kings, and Nicholas, when we first meet him as the large, clumsy, cheerful apprentice Claes, is less immediately attractive than Lymond, althogh it quickly becomes clear that there is a great deal more to him than meets the eye, and his cheerful approach to life is a nice change from Lymond's epic manpain. The large supporting cast includes a number of interesting and likeable characters (I particularly like Marian de Charetty) as well as a few interesting and definitely unlikeable ones and some who are just interesting and ambiguous. I enjoyed the setting, and having discovered a previously unsuspected fascination with trade history while reading The Ringed Castle I loved the setting and the background detail of the world of 15th-century merchants and bankers. The plot doesn't seem to twist and turn as much as the Lymond plots do, but I think that may actually be deceptive as the last fifty pages or so turn quite a lot of things on their heads.

I think the main difference to The Game of Kings is that that is a book that can stand on its own, presumably because when Dunnett wrote it she had no idea whether it could be published, let alone that it would be the start of a series, whereas by the time she came to Niccolo she was an established author, and Niccolo Rising very definitely feels like the first act of a much longer story. I'm looking forward to reading the others, in time, and I suspect that I'll like the Claes of the first book better when I know more of the later Nicholas.

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