Men didn’t go to war and stay merchants

Dorothy Dunnett - Niccoló Rising

Historical fiction isn’t all that different from fantasy: It’s all about the world building, except you use one of the real worlds instead of building a new one.  Historical novels can perhaps skip the 20 pages explaining what, where and why France is, but they have to describe their world in detail all the same: The context is half the story, half the appeal.

The context in Niccoló Rising by Dorothy Dunnett is Flanders and Italy in the 15th century, a context that deserves a protagonist who could walk out of a renaissance painting.  One of those whose ambitious eyes shine out across the centuries, as if they’re asserting a right to run our world as well.

Niccoló will eventually end up in a painting like that, no doubt, but in this first of many novels in the House of Niccoló series he’s just a clever apprentice, who manouvers his way into becoming some sort of merchant/mercenary/courier/spy.

I enjoyed the novel a lot, partly because of how vividly it paints mid-15th century Europe.  But the more I think about it, the less I want to read the followups.  Niccoló is too perfect.  Despite being maybe 20, he’s absolutely brilliant, knows everything that happens in any court or banking house in Europe, can trick anyone, pull any string to make anything happen, and is a fantastic lover.

The novel says he’s flawed, but I see no sign of it.  I see a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Which can be fun, but not fun enough to last eight long novels.

3 Responses to Men didn’t go to war and stay merchants

  1. Judith Newman says:

    Can I recommend you keep reading, at least the next couple…the flaws begin to appear. Even at the end of eight, I’m not sure I know who Claes really is

  2. Perhaps! I’m right on the balance point here, so it doesn’t take much to convince me to read on.

  3. Simon Hedges says:

    In both Dunnett’s historical series, the protagonist appears to be pretty much up together in the first book, but gets more issues as the series progress. And in House of Niccolo there are two questions – whether and how Niccolo is flawed, and whether and how everyone else thinks he is flawed. After all, he just got together with a woman who he has viewed since chilhood as a mother figure. Issues, much?

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