The House of Niccolò: Book II
While the Lymond Chronicles were built around the notion of a great game of chess, the House of Niccolò is ruled by the zodiac. At this early stage, who can tell whether this will prove to have the same significance for Nicholas that chess had for Lymond? Maybe it’s just serendipity that the word ‘house’ has both mercantile and astrological connotations. In The Spring of the Ram, the title alludes primarily to the potential riches of Nicholas’s journey east, to quarry the wealth of the Orient in Trebizond. This last, fragile outpost of the Byzantine Empire is the new Colchis and throughout the novel there runs a thread of references to the Golden Fleece, Jason, the Argo and Medea.
Nicholas has left Bruges in order to avoid further confrontations with Simon; and his taste for trade, profit and adventure leads him to Florence. Rumour says that the Medici are planning to appoint a Florentine consul in Trebizond; rumour also says, more pertinently for Nicholas, that there are valuable alum deposits on the coast of the Black Sea. Blessed with intelligence, a troop of soldiers under Astorre and the support of powerful backers, Nicholas finds that his interview is almost a formality. The Florentine section is brief, but it does allow a glorious interlude in Cosimo de’ Medici’s city, which complements my recent reading of A Gift for the Magus.
Nicholas and his companions plunge into the splendour of the town and almost take part in an Epiphany procession of the Company of the Magi, although Nicholas is waylaid instead by a certain early Renaissance sculptor. To add to the sense of fun, the sculptor isn’t named at the time, although plenty of hints are dropped about his identity, and Dunnett can’t resist allowing Nicholas to correct him on a few salient points of geometry. In retrospect, this Florentine period has a bittersweet feel: it shows us a Nicholas who can still be free and madcap and clownish. We will see less and less of this side of his character as the book goes on. And Dunnett, for whom nothing is sacred, finishes the novel with an emotional blow that conclusively severs Nicholas from his childhood and youth, and makes him – irrevocably – his own man.
Trebizond may be a glittering relic of Byzantium, but it’s also a city whose ancient dignity is cheapened by decadence and whose courtly rituals conceal a seam of very real danger. That danger threatens Nicholas’s safety but also the reputation and security of his adopted family. On his way there, he discovers that Catherine, the headstrong younger daughter of his wife Marian, has been seduced by the charming Genoese, Pagano Doria. Blinded by romantic longings, twelve-year-old Catherine has decided to elope with her suitor, little realising that Pagano Doria is an adventurer and a player of games, not unlike Nicholas, and that he just happens to be Trebizond’s new Genoese consul. There is to be a contest of wits, and it couldn’t ask for a more dazzling theatre.
This gorgeous, decadent, labyrinthine, archaic world flutters back into life through Dunnett’s words: a treat for all the senses, underpinned as ever by her quiet humour. Gorgeously-dressed riders in a procession are ‘encased like (vacant?) reliquaries in gold wire and jewels and silk’ and Janisseries are ‘daisy-ringed round the fires in their gleaming white bonnets’. And then there are some wonderful set-pieces: one of the sections I enjoyed most was the tzukanion match (a bit like polo?) which, like all Dunnett’s best episodes, allows her characters to display both physical and mental agility.
In this book we begin to discern parts of the wider picture: for all his joy in puzzles and strategies, Nicholas may not be the master of his own fate. (Naturally, spoilers lie ahead.) The astrological theme of the series suggests that Destiny is guiding him; but isn’t it equally possible that Destiny has a human face? Several times I was reminded that both Nicolai Giorgio de’ Acciajuoli and Violante of Naxos are driven by some broader motivation which remains mysterious at the moment. (As a small aside, what did people think of de’ Acciajuoli’s first-person prologue? For me it struck the only false note in the book and I’m not sure whether it was necessary. But perhaps its significance will become apparent.) In short, how much of what happens to Nicholas is due to chance; how much to his own networking skills; and how much to the fact that powerful people are already aware of him and are waiting to see what he will do? And what are the plans that Violante and her husband Caterino Zeno have hatched?
There’s more bubbling under the surface than I can make out clearly at this point. My head is spinning with the relationships between Greeks, Venetians and Genoese; with the question of how far all the factions are motivated by the importance of alum deposits; and exactly who has initiated what. We are told that Doria has been employed by Simon, who funds his journey to Trebizond as Genoese consul in the hope of discrediting Nicholas and the Charetty company. But is this purely Simon’s initiative? His actions against Nicholas seem to be characterised by impetuosity rather than the careful, vindictive planning of Doria’s role. I wonder whether in fact it might turn out to be a case of Jordan de Ribérac working through Simon. There’s something about de Ribérac’s attitude to Nicholas that puzzles me. At some points I wonder if de Ribérac might turn out to be Nicholas’s father, having made a play for Simon’s first wife (as Simon, significantly, seems to be virtually infertile). But then that’s too close to what happens in Lymond, so perhaps I’ve simply picked up on a red herring.
In any case, Doria’s presence and eventual failure in Trebizond are also advantageous for the Venetian contingent. His presence gives Nicholas a form of competition, which Nicholas is unable to resist; furthermore, his abduction of Catherine de Charetty provides ‘bait’ (a word which Dunnett herself uses) to ensure that Nicholas comes east to Trebizond. Who, then, encouraged Doria to seduce Catherine? I can imagine de Ribérac enjoying the situation, but I also wonder what lengths Violante of Naxos and de’ Acciajuoli would go to, in order to make sure that Nicholas goes where they want him. Why, though? That’s what I still don’t understand and so I hope that in later books we begin to understand a bit more of the game unfolding beneath the surface.
I mentioned earlier that our perception of Nicholas changes in this novel. It’s interesting to see those around him also beginning to reevaluate their assessments, and the adjustment is rarely in his favour. Dunnett, who seems to thoroughly enjoy playing with our expectations, draws our attention to the striking coincidence that those who’ve shamed or humiliated Nicholas tend to get their just deserts, in ways that can never quite be traced back to him, and yet the questions linger…
Last in this series: Niccolò Rising
Next in this series: Race of Scorpions