The House of Niccolò: Book VI
The tone of the ending lingers with me yet, subdued and bittersweet rather than the dramatic cliffhanger I might have expected. After feeling rather lost in The Unicorn Hunt, I felt that this was a definite return to form. A very carefully-crafted plot on (generally) a limited geographical scale allows the characters and their relationships to shine. There are also some wonderful set-pieces – classic Dunnett – offering flashes of theatrical brilliance among the warp and weft of the intrigues.
Here Nicholas finally has the chance to bond with his infant son and, imposing the appearance of domestic harmony on his troubled family, settles Gelis and the child in Edinburgh. Scotland provides the playground for Nicholas’s new schemes, through which he ingratiates himself with the young King and his siblings, and receives even further advancement. And yet Scotland alone isn’t sufficient: craving release and adventure, Nicholas concocts a plan that will take him north to the bleak, raw and treacherous beauty of Iceland, little realising that in so doing he will cement two steadfast friendships (one of the few commodities of which he risks a scarcity).
From now on, as always, it will become more difficult to avoid spoilers so please exercise caution if you haven’t read the book. I feel I should begin with Nicholas, whom I really didn’t like very much in the last instalment, but who redeems himself a little here. His care in building his relationship with Jodi is touching, or at least I choose to see it in that way; you could also make the case that he doesn’t do anything without calculating the benefits. There is still something faintly diabolical about Nicholas on occasion, though: that remarkable scene at Hesdin was chilling and fascinating in equal measure. The episode in the Hall of Medea, showing off in miniature Nicholas’s talents as puppet-master, engineer and trickster, found me sympathising with Gelis for once (I try not to do that too much).
It was all very cinematic – for the rest of the book I was haunted by that vision of Nicholas standing on the bridge over the chasm with his face lit from below. I wonder if it lingered in Dunnett’s mind too, because there was an odd echo of that disembodiment later on, off the coast of Iceland, when she playfully likens him to the Bocca della Verità: ‘his gilt-bearded face looked capable of biting off hands, like a leonine post-box’.
So on this hand, we have Nicholas as manipulator, Nicholas setting himself apart from those around him, giving a glimpse of the ruthlessness which is driving him. Reading this I began to wonder, for the first time, whether it could be true that all his efforts are focused simply on redressing the humiliations he suffered throughout his boyhood, first at the hands of Simon, then the de Fleury family and finally the people who mocked him in Bruges. The problem is, I think that’s too simple. Nicholas isn’t quite as nice as I initially thought he was, but I don’t for a minute think he’s simple.
Although Nicholas appears in steely guise in this book, he is also ready to have some fun again and that meant fun for me as a reader as well. The wonderful game of Florentine football on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle was as dynamic, as crazy and as clever as the rooftop race at Blois in Queens’ Play – surely that was the inspiration for it? And in his friendships with the splendidly down-to-earth Katelijne and Robin, Nicholas shows that his humanity just needs a little bit of kindling to burst into life. The early part of the Icelandic section was rich with the kind of gleeful absurdity that hasn’t caught my eye for a while (I loved Nicholas’s careless labelling of Katelijne and Anselm as the ‘Adornlings’).
All of this bundled together made Nicholas feel more real to me as a character this time; here I began to respond to him as I did to Lymond, in the sense that there were all the elements of a believably real person here, the good and the bad. His struggle with Gelis felt more plausible too: I began to understand, finally, that their duel is a matter of pride and that they only know how to hurt each other so deeply because there is a genuinely profound attachment underneath it all. Their sparring has started to remind me of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter: it’s that same kind of bond, where the two of them can’t live together but can’t bear to be apart. They need each other, because they appreciate their opponent’s intelligence; and here, of course, we finally get to see what Gelis has been up to. I’m not sure whether that is considered to be a big revelatory moment or not; I wasn’t overly surprised, mainly because at one time or another I’ve considered every character as an agent of the Vatachino including, just for the hell of it, Nicholas himself in some incredibly complex double-bluff.
But we leave Nicholas at a moment when he seems to have isolated himself. Fascinated by mechanisms and puzzles and numbers, he’s forgotten the people who will suffer from his plans. Or has he simply blocked them out to avoid the pain? At an earlier point, Gelis had already enjoyed tormenting him with more details about how Katelina once suffered. I was very powerfully struck by the simple phrase which drifts into Nicholas’s mind after that scene: ‘Say good night to the dark’. Anyone who has read Pawn in Frankincense will understand why that suddenly made me shiver with foreboding, and all the hairs went up on the backs of my arms. The specifics of Nicholas’s situation are different from Lymond’s, of course, but he finds himself in a broadly similar situation at this point in the series, two books from the end: abandoned by those who care for him and setting out (I presume) on a new scheme which will allow him to win back his friends and prove himself. Hopefully along the way he will be able to find some way of either silencing Henry de St Pol, whom I have happily begun to loathe, or developing a very early form of cognitive behavioural therapy. However, there is no point in trying to make predictions. One can never be sure what’s going to happen until the final page, as we all found with Checkmate, and that’s part of the joy of these series.
Although the set-pieces this time struck me more for their dramatic vigour than their language, there were some beautiful passages and, for me, the most exquisite descriptive prose came from the section set in Iceland. I really enjoyed this part, which surprised me because I had always imagined I’d be drawn to the more sumptuous and exotic locations. And yet something about the barrenness of the ice floes and the lava fields appealed to me: it’s obviously my cold islander’s blood speaking out. Then again, maybe it was the volcanos… I defy anyone not to be impressed by the pyrotechnics of Hekla and Katla:
This was a spectacle of red and gold flames, of spinning fire-balls, of swathes and columns of sparkling ashes and sand. This was the crack of thunder and the roar of explosions and the massive, evil susurration of the deluge, continuous as the hiss of the sea. This was the Twilight of the Gods.
It was great to see Nicholas and Katelijne throw themselves so thoroughly into Icelandic culture, allowing Dunnett to drop in lots of intriguing little snippets about sagas, heroes and the Norse Gods (which I thoroughly enjoyed and which reminded me of The Last Light of the Sun); although I’m amazed and rather envious at the way her characters all exhibit such a talent for languages. Her own apparently limitless knowledge is pretty daunting too.
For all the tidiness at the end of this book – several key characters neatly set up with marriages or children – there is still the loose, lingering thread of our protagonist. Perhaps by the end of this series I will have come to understand Nicholas de Fleury, although I imagine you can probably read the books several times and have a different impression on each encounter. I do feel that he has recovered a bit of his warmth, as I’d hoped he would; but I don’t have the kind of passionate engagement with him as a character that I had with Lymond, perhaps because he is that bit more flawed. Certainly I have stopped thinking of Nicholas as ‘our hero’. But I am very interested to see what he does next. His actions might well have been approved of by another politically-minded Niccolò, fifty years later, although if we follow Machiavelli’s maxims, it remains to be seen exactly what end could justify this multiplicity of means. And in what form that end will be achieved… well, as Nicholas himself says:
Why should a man visit Iceland, unless to sift through the shades of the underworld, looking for his next incarnation?
Last in this series: The Unicorn Hunt
Next in this series: Caprice and Rondo