These are the opening words of Niccolò Rising, the first of the House of Niccolò books by Dorothy Dunnett. But of course, as she implies, everything changes, and these very men, these merchants of the Renaissance, were the agents of some of the greatest change of all. Admirers of the Lymond Chronicles, looking for more of the wonderful romance, repartee, and swashbuckling we were given in that series, may at first be disappointed. But here is a different romance, slower and surer: the romance of trade, of power, and in the end, the great romance of political, family, and personal change.
Niccolò Rising is the story of Claes vander Poele (short for Nicholas – he bears many a nickname in the course of the series), a dyer’s apprentice from Bruges. By means of his genial good humor, a pair of dimples, and a mind like an intricate and inescapable trap, Claes becomes Ser Niccolò de Fleury, a successful merchant with a trade in alum. And more: plans for a monopoly that will make his company richer than they ever could have dreamed. And more: grudging respect from some of the people he used to serve, including Marian de Charretty, his employer.
Some of the people he served respect him. Others hold him in contempt and ridicule, including Jordan and Simon de St. Pol, the men Claes believe to be his grandfather and father . This is just the beginning of the long, tangled family narrative of the St. Pol and de Fleury story in this series, but Dunnett sets the tone immediately. Claes – Niccolò – Nicholas – is dangerous; accidents happen to those he hates, and long, careful machinations lurk behind his cheerful, simple smile. Can the reader trust him? Can his own company? In what capacity? To what extent?
The novel takes on the tangle of trade and family with a level of detail lacking in the Lymond Chronicles, but it’s not all work and no play. The language, for one thing, is pure delight:
”And across the water, you would swear you could sniff it all; the cinnamon and the cloves, the frankincense and the honey and the licorice, the nutmeg and citrons, the myrrh and the rosewater from Persia in keg upon keg. You would think you could glimpse, heaped and glimmering, the sapphires and the emeralds and the gauzes woven with gold, the ostrich feathers and the elephant tusks, the gums and the ginger and the coral buttons mynheer Goswin the clerk of the Hanse might be wearing on his jacket next week. . . . The Flanders galleys put into harbor every night in their highly paid voyage from Venice, fanned down the Adriatic by the thick summer airs, drifting into Corfu and Otranto, nosing into and out of Sicily and round the heel of Italy as far as Naples; blowing handsomely across the western gulf to Majorca, and then to the north African coast, and up and round Spain and Portugal, dropping off the small, lucrative loads which were not needed for Bruges; taking on board a little olive oil, some candied orange peel, some scented leather, a trifle of plate and a parrot, some sugar loaves.”
Trade? Boring? Never! And despite the slower tone, there are riotous, joyous scenes of sheer horseplay; Claes, after all, is only nineteen. (There’s a running gag with an ostrich that is not to be missed.) And throughout all of it, it’s Claes himself who is the mystery, and also the answer. Even when you doubt, you have faith. After the Lymond Chronicles, I wasn’t sure I’d ever love another hero as well as Francis Crawford of Lymond, but she did it with Claes. With Niccolò. With his changing, shifting, developing self.
Next time: Spring of the Ram.