Review: Niccoló Rising by Dorothy Dunnett
Updated: Mar 22, 2020
This is a book I picked up after one of my friends talked up this series (House of Niccoló) and another one by the same author, Dorothy Dunnett (The Lymond Chronicles). And after reading it, I can absolutely see why my friend talked it up as much as she did.
Niccoló Rising is the first book in the House of Niccoló series, which traces the life and adventures of a young Flemish man, Nicholas van der Poele, who sets up a merchant trading business. This story takes place in the mid-fifteenth century (I would place it 1459, as one of the characters is Charles who became King of France in 1461 while he is still Dauphin; and a subplot of the entire book is the Wars of the Roses in England, which the Lancastrians are currently winning since Henry VI is on the throne; and one of the last events of the book is the death of James II of Scotland, who died in 1460; let me just push up my glasses in the nerdiest of possible ways here), so basically the height of Renaissance mercantilism. Cosimo de Medici is already one of the more powerful men in Italy, so that should give you an idea of how important money and business is in this novel.
Nicholas starts off the book as a prankster, mischief-making dyer’s apprentice in Bruges, which in the 1450s was at its absolute peak as an important trading post in Flanders (which, at the time, was controlled by the Duchy of Burgundy; who was an enemy of the King of France; I cannot properly or quickly explain all of the interlinking of the dynastic and political intrigues that make the context of this story. My one and only piece of advice is to read this book with the character list that is helpfully placed at the front handy, along with Wikipedia. You will be doing an awful lot of Googling, unless you're already an expert in early-Renaissance European trading practices and relationships).
Anyway. Where was I. Oh yes, Nicholas. Nicholas is the main protagonist of the book, and you follow his story as he rises from apprentice to head of the business in Bruges that he is apprenticed to. I can’t really describe the plot without giving it away, because a lot happens. But what made this book delightful was the way Dorothy Dunnett spreads the threads of the story throughout the entire book – it was a bit like unraveling a whodunit in the way all the puzzle pieces line up and come together. You end the book both hugely impressed and slightly terrified of the main character of the series, since he is so diabolically clever. I especially loved the way the author never gives anything away, but leaves all the clues and pieces there for you to put together if the reader wishes.
The writing is also absolutely lovely, both atmospheric and precise. She sometimes gets lost in her metaphors in the long descriptive stretches, so that I had to read some chunks of the text over again, but the dialogue is intelligent and sharp and she never treats her readers as less clever than her characters, which I appreciate. Her characters are also well-crafted; they are all completely different, fully-fledged people. The villains are a bit cartoonishly simple in their villainy, but redeemed by the fact that Nicholas is well-matched with them – you really enjoy reading about their confrontations and the way they lock horns. Her women, especially, are richly detailed and intelligent – which is a hugely refreshing breath of fresh air. Again, though, I stress – do not be afraid to refer back to the character list at the start of the book, as the names and, most importantly, the way all the characters are interrelated can get a bit tricky to keep track of, especially when everyone is on the move.
My favorite bit of this novel, however, is how atemporal Dorothy Dunnett’s writing is. This isn’t a fifteenth-century book, it’s a story that happens to be set in the fifteenth century. The setting and the time period, while they shape the narratives and the characters to an almost entire extent, function as characters in their own right, and they are treated with the respect that such a behemoth undertaking deserves. Dunnett has obviously done a great deal of research on the politicking and dynastic intrigue of the time period, and it reflects throughout the entire story. It does not take a huge amount of mental energy to transport yourself into the story because of how seamlessly she interweaves the humanity and the experiences of her characters into their setting and their context. It’s also just a really good story – it’s gripping, the twists and turns are fun to follow, and watching the puzzle pieces click into piece is truly exhilarating. Plus, that twist right at the end was so good and so smoothly built up to that I actually yelped on my train – even though, looking back on it, of course that’s the plot twist. The clues and the hints were there throughout the entire book, you just don’t pick up on them until you’re looking back on it (which is my favorite type of plot twist, because the ‘plot twist for the sake of a plot twist’ that comes out of absolutely nowhere has become a very current trope lately and I fucking hate it, it’s the laziest type of writing there is). I think, ultimately, that’s what I liked best about discovering this author and her work – she is absolutely not a lazy writer. Everything is meticulously researched, plotted, thought out.
It’s not a lazy read, either. You do have to do some mental work to keep up with Nicholas’s brains, and you have to think about the plot to ensure that you’re getting all of the clues that lead up to the big reveal. But I maintain that the energy you put into this book is absolutely worth the pay-off, and the history you learn from the Googling you do is fascinating in its own right. I would definitely recommend this book to anybody with an interest in detailed historical fiction.
I absolutely can’t wait to read the rest of this series, and I’m actually disappointed that the books are hard to get a hold of – that’s what you get for liking obscure historical fiction from the 1990s!
Please let me know if you decide to give House of Niccoló a go, and if you do, maybe we can start a book club and read along together! Or go on a Dorothy Dunnett roadtrip through Europe (it’s what my friend who recommended the series to me and I are planning. You eat very well in Bruges…)