Inspired by my excitement about King Hereafter, I have finally started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s other big series, The House of Niccolò. I’ve actually owned Niccolò Rising for many years, and I’d started it a few times before, but it is another story with a slow burn and I’d never made it past Chapter 2. If I hadn’t been schooled in this trick of Dunnett’s so recently, I think I would have bogged down once more, and it did take a bit of determination to keep on. I remembered, this time, that I have to trust her and that if I do, I won’t be disappointed.
I wasn’t disappointed in Niccolò Rising — but mostly I wasn’t enthralled either, though I was almost always interested or curious. There are certainly sporadic sequences (as in King Hereafter) that are exciting or dramatic. Then, a lot happens in the last 50 pages, and I was reminded that while King Hereafter stands on its own, Niccolò Rising is just the beginning of a much longer saga, so the real pay-off for her elaborate set-up (and it really is a tangled web she and Niccolò are weaving) is yet to come. I’ll certainly pursue it! Though I haven’t quite given my heart to anyone in this book the way I lost it so completely to Lymond, Claes / Nicholas is a really intriguing figure. Pobably the best thing about Niccolò Rising, in fact, is watching him transform from the wide-eyed, powerless, good-natured boy Claes into the much more poised man Nicholas and wondering, as his friends and associates do at the end of the novel, if I really know him at all. “He’s won the good will of everyone who has ever beaten him,” observes the doctor Tobie,
‘by being cheerful, placid, long-suffering, and, above all, by bearing no grudges. It makes him attractive to work with. For me, it would make him attractive to work for. But I’ve begun to wonder about this submissive role. Is it genuine?’
Julius grinned. He said, ‘Have you seen Nicholas putting up with a beating? It’s genuine.’
‘Oh, he puts up with it, at the time,’ Tobie said. ‘But what if he doesn’t immediately forget it, as you seem to think? What if every slight, every punishment is being quietly registered, because he is really a different sort of person altogether?’
‘I’ve wondered,’ said Gregorio.
‘Yes. So have I,’ said Tobie. ‘Is he what he seems? And then, from wondering, I started to notice things. The chief being this: whom friend Nicholas dislikes, it seems to me, friend Nicholas kills.’
“I started to notice things”: that’s Dunnett’s recipe, isn’t it, that we should notice things, and from there, do our best to connect them, as Tobie, Gregorio, and Julius proceed to do. They are much better at it than I am, though, and that is something that is starting to bother me, not so much about Dunnett as about myself as a reader. Is it my fault that here too I was so incapable of following the multiple threads that make up Dunnett’s incredibly intricate pattern? Is the pattern really so intricate, or am I not working hard enough, as a reader? I imagine that the pleasures of her books are greater for those who can keep track of the allegiances and loyalties and double-dealings, overt and covert, actual and possible, the way her heroes do. What makes them heroes, of course, is that they can do this, so maybe we aren’t expected to be in the know: as a device, it keeps us both surprised and impressed as she pulls out her version of the detective’s “reveal.” Other Dunnett readers: do you follow the game as it’s played, or wait, as I mostly do, for the outcome and the laying down of the hands? I grasp enough to appreciate the human confrontations, but that’s also mostly what I’m reading for, and maybe that’s a sign of weakness.
In any case, I do want to read on: she populates her novels with characters who provoke complex responses, which I really enjoy (here, so far, Katelina van Borselen is a particularly tricky one, and Marian de Charetty is particularly appealing) and there are worse expectations than that I will be consistently outsmarted even as I’m entertained and moved.