Scales of Gold (1991): Dorothy Dunnett


The House of Niccolò: Book IV

As I’ve said before, I’d already read the first three books of the House of Niccolò series, up to Race of Scorpions: this novel and its successors, by contrast, are gloriously fresh and new. During the last three books, I have to admit that I missed the breathless sensation of reading a Dunnett novel for the first time. Fortunately Scales of Gold has more than lived up to my expectations in that respect. Within the first hundred pages there is pomp and pageantry, a mass reunion, espionage, an attempted assassination, a death, a mysterious visit to Murano and the prospect of complete ruination for Nicholas’s bank. And that’s even before he unveils the main thread of the plot, more ambitious and dangerous than any of his previous escapades.

So far the story has played itself out within the confines of Western culture, but Europe is growing too small for Nicholas. Visceral and epic in every sense, Scales of Gold lures us south, to the African civilisations in the Gambia and Mali and along the trade routes to Timbuktu and the vast sweep of the desert. Here Nicholas comes, lured by curiosity and gold, to establish a fortune for himself and his bank and perhaps even to press east, further than any European has ever been, into Ethiopia in search of Prester John. But he neglects to consider the cost that such a journey might exert on those who travel with him;  and the transformative effect it could have even on him.

There’s an air of high adventure about this novel which differentiates it from the previous two, in which martial and political matters drove the plot; and, in the early parts of the journey at least, it recaptures some of the light-heartedness of Niccolò Rising. Surging south by roundship or caravel (which, incidentally, is a lovely word), racing against the ship of their rival traders, Nicholas is separated from all his usual companions except Father Godscalc, who doesn’t trust him, and the enigmatic Loppe, whose friendship and duty will be tested to the utmost.

At Nicholas’s side, against all his expectations, are two people he would have given a great deal to leave behind: Diniz Vasquez, who hero-worships him, and Gelis van Borselen, the younger sister of Katelina, who is determined to learn the truth about her sister’s death and Nicholas’s role in it. Gelis is accompanied by the glorious Bel of Cuthilgurdy, whom I imagine to share something of Dunnett’s own happy essence: good-natured, sharp-witted and with a wicked sense of humour. In the best spirit of adventure stories, this little band is forced to put aside their differences as they leave behind the world that they know and enter a rich, dizzying paradise of strange animals and trees, where drums echo in the dark and all the senses threaten to be overwhelmed. Along the way there is some fairly gruesome violence and several occasions when we’re left in limbo about whether or not favourite characters are dead. One will be, by the end.

As usual, there’s a vast amount going on and I’m sure that I’ve missed things. Knowing nothing about African history or culture in the fifteenth century, I was first and foremost impressed by the exotic descriptions and the unfamiliar customs. Whether she’s describing Scotland or Trebizond or the Gambia, Dunnett’s world is always completely convincing. The characters, too: it’s fascinating, after finishing one of her books, to go back to the list of dramatis personae at the beginning and to see which of the characters actually existed and who is simply a product of her imagination. It can be virtually impossible to decide simply from reading the book; and that, needless to say, is precisely the mark of a good writer. The settings are as vivid as ever, despite their unfamiliarity. Timbuktu especially intrigued me: this city of scholars, bibliophiles and merchants, like an island on the edge of the desert, where Nicholas finally discovers the inner peace which has eluded him for so long. One of the passages I found most beautiful grew from this:

Now they were but seven pepper-seeds upon an ocean which stretched, white as curds, to the rim of the universe… And as the sun rose, disclosing the scalloped forms of the dunes, and sank, a vast glory at night, Nicholas experienced the liberation he had not so far been vouchsafed in his life.

From now on there will be spoilers, or suggestions thereof, because (as anyone who’s read the book can imagine) I can’t resist talking about one of the main characters: a case in which I think Dunnett played her hand very well. Gelis turned out to be much more interesting than I initially thought she was. Certainly, from the start, she was intelligent and refreshingly frank and one of the few people able to deal with Nicholas at his own level. You might not be surprised, after my comments about Nicholas’s effect on women in my previous post, to hear that my heart sank when Gelis began to soften towards him. Is there ever to be a significant female character in this series, I asked myself, who doesn’t eventually end up in bed with Nicholas?

Please don’t misunderstand me: I was content as we came towards the end of the novel. Nicholas was on track to finally make an appropriate marriage, settle down, have masses of children and become a pillar of society. When I like a character, I want them to have a happy ending and it would be churlish to grumble about everything being tidied up so neatly. (However, if there had been a double wedding with Diniz and Tilde, I might have started to worry that Dunnett was veering into heartwarming  Jane Austen territory.) I did wonder, fleetingly, how the next four books were going to unfold if Nicholas was ensconced in domestic harmony in Bruges.

And then: bam! It turns out that Dunnett’s world still has teeth and sharp wits, and isn’t as snuggly and rose-tinted as it might pretend to be. And Gelis – thank God, perhaps – has a firmer, more ruthless sense of purpose than I ever imagined. I’d been completely misled; and I was glad of it. The only scene in the novel that rivalled this for satisfaction was Diniz’s reception of Simon on the deck of the San Niccolò, which was a glorious coup for Team Nicholas. I may have cheered.

Let me explain a little more. If the book had finished as I was expecting it to, that would have been all very nice for the final novel in a series, but it would have been a bit tidy for the end of a fourth novel with four more left to go. If Nicholas had finished off in a golden glow of marital bliss, I might have felt that my engagement with the story, at least temporarily, had been neatly tied up; I might have turned to The Agony and the Ecstasy, for example, which is sitting there, just waiting for a slot to be reread. As things are… well, I think I can consider myself hooked in masterful fashion. Next up is The Unicorn Hunt, which intrigues me for two reasons. First, because the Dunnett Society are selling a rather pretty unicorn brooch and I want to know what the significance is; and secondly because this is the first of the books that departs from the openly astrological scheme of the titles. Thinking outside the box, all I can come up with is that, if you’re going to hunt a unicorn, you need a virgin to catch it – so presumably it represents Virgo in the greater scheme of things?

I suppose I’ll just have to go to read it and find out for myself…

Buy the book

Last in this series: Race of Scorpions

Next in this series: The Unicorn Hunt

18 thoughts on “Scales of Gold (1991): Dorothy Dunnett

  1. maryb says:

    This is one of my favorite Dunnett books. I knew nothing about Timbuktu before I read it and I loved learning new things. And the gut-punching ending. Wow. Won't say more because I don't want to give anything away.

  2. hmcmullin says:

    I almost envy you! I've just finished reading the Niccolo series – I'd read the first 6 books a number of years ago, but re-read them again so I could remember what happened so the last two made sense. You will, of course, continue to find more twists, turns and DD's delightful humor. That lady gave new meaning to plots within plots and surprises. You do have to pay attention because small things matter.

  3. Leander says:

    I suppose there's still a chance that the cliffhanger ending is actually a bluff? But that's probably wishful thinking. ('Gut-punching' is about right.) Dunnett seems to have a fondness for this kind of thing: Lymond and Gabriel sprang to mind…

    Once again, with Timbuktu and all the novel aspects you mention, I found myself marvelling at the sheer depth of her research. Quite astonishing…

  4. Leander says:

    I know! Short of reading the novels with a notebook to hand, I think I just have to allow myself to be carried along with the tide. Thank you for reassuring me that there is more humour to come! I had been worrying that, after the conclusion of this book, humour didn't look very likely in the near future…

    And… onto the next book 🙂

  5. Helen says:

    My thoughts on this book were very much the same as yours. The cliffhanger ending was great, wasn't it? I don't think we need to worry about Nicholas settling down to domestic bliss just yet!

    I think you'll probably finish this series before I do – I haven't got much time to read at the moment unfortunately. I'm about a quarter of the way through The Unicorn Hunt and loving it so far. As for the astrological connection, my copy has a picture of Sagittarius the archer (hunter) on the cover, but I do like your Virgo idea too.

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Helen! Interesting about the Sagittarius connection… I'm still none the wiser from the book itself. I must be at about the same place as you, I should think. You say you haven't got much time to read – that made me laugh, as you usually seem to get through about ten books a month!

    Must say, though, the humour that hmcmullin promised us seems to be in relatively short supply just at the moment… For the first time I don't like Nicholas very much. Not that this will have any bearing on my eventual fondness for him, of course. After all, I didn't think much of Lymond at first. 🙂

    Enjoy the rest! No doubt we'll exchange thoughts once we've both finished it…

  7. Anonymous says:

    The unicorn brooch probably has to do with the Scottish Order of the Unicorn, which turns up in the overall story of the last four books.

    The theme of the book UNICORN HUNT is hunting, so I say Sagittarius is the appropriate astrological sign.

    Elaine T

  8. Prue Batten says:

    I'm in agreement with the commentary so far: the descriptions of Timbuktu were so enticing and thereafter I noted references to Timbuktu and its great centre of learning in documentaries on TV and indeed, wanted to learn more myself. Prior to Dunnett, I seriously thought Timbuktu was a mythological city.

    Having read all of the Niccolo (and Lymond) series a number of times, I think Dunnett is the Master (or Mistress if you prefer) of the Volte Face. One never knows what plot twists and turns will occur and I don't think I ever sat back and thought 'Phew, well that's that, then.' Niccolo is Macchiavellian and that alone creates enigmatic drama, with the possibility of tragedy by the bucket load.

    As an aside, I have two brilliant Dunnett Companions which never leave my side when I am re-reading. Edited by Elspeth Morrison, the first was released at the time of the last Niccolo, the second after Dunnett's sad passing. They have the very essence of her writing stacked fact upon fact within the pages.

  9. Leander says:

    Hello Prue! For some reason, when I was a little girl, I got it into my head that Timbuktu was in India, so there's clearly a general lack of information out there! Has there ever been a whole documentary on Timbuktu or does it just have a walk-on part in other programmes? Oh, and I agree about the volte face. My attitude towards the end of the book was less: “Well that's all wrapped up” and more: “Hang on, this is all a bit too nice for Dunnett – something's got to happen – but what?”

    I will be getting the Dunnett Companions one day: you are one of many who has recommended them. But way back at the beginning of Lymond I promised someone that I would read the entire two series without the companion first, to just enjoy the story, and when I go back to read them again, when there's no risk of the overall plot being spoiled, I'll definitely do so with the Companions, to get even more out of it. 🙂

    Thanks so much for your comment!

  10. Levi Stahl says:

    I read this book in a rush, and a year and a half later it still comes to mind regularly. The surprises in the final pages . . . I remember thinking that I know no author who loves her characters as much as Dunnett, and no author who's as cruel to them as she is.

  11. Jean Gobel says:

    Well, I can hardly breathe. I agree that the scene of Diniz receiving Simon was marvelous! I shouted for joy! The journey thru the land of the blacks was so vividly described it produced a movie in my mind as I read. I, too, knew nothing about Timbuktu, would now like to know more…. Why did you dislike Nicholas this time? ….I really thought one main character would not survive the self-imposed ordeal, and wonder if another favorite character can survive twice? I rather like your thoughts on how the series could survive another four books if all worked out as hoped, but My Golly! This was a hit below the belt! And I still can't catch my breath.

  12. Leander says:

    Wasn't that Diniz / Simon scene great?! I have to say that I didn't actually dislike Nicholas so much in this book, because I think he returned a little to being the good-natured adventurer I liked so much in the first couple of novels. And of course the book's conclusion is bound to make us feel sorry for him! I'm so glad you enjoyed the twist as the end as much as I did. So few authors would have been able to carry that off with the required subtlety and surprise and Dunnett just absolutely nails it.

    Now then; I'm very interested to see what you think of the next book… 🙂

  13. ww2letters says:

    So much enjoying reading all the comments. I’m making my way through the Niccolo series for the fourth time, which affords me the luxury of remembering (somewhat) what happens down the road and who turns out to be enemy instead of friend, so I can watch the clues along the way. Nobody in my daily life will read this so I’m grateful to find other enthusiasts online.

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