The House of Niccolò: Book VII
Time moves on apace and, in this penultimate instalment of the House of Niccolò, we rejoin Nicholas in the exile forced upon him after the revelations at the end of To Lie with Lions. Having allowed his personal vendetta to colour the dealings of his bank and almost brought down a nation in the process, Nicholas has been severed not only from his beloved company but also from his wife Gelis. Now he must take stock, judge where his future and desires really lie, and prove his competence and reliability to his friends.
Moreover, Nicholas must protect his wife and son, from a distance, against his enemies (now a fairly substantial list of people). To the old bêtes noires Jordan de Ribérac and Simon de St Pol we can add the silky and dangerous David de Salmeton, once an agent of the Vatachino in Cyprus but now discredited thanks to Nicholas. And, last but not least in his list of Herculean tasks, Nicholas has to counter an unexpected threat in the form of his own past. He is not the only one struggling. Sundered across Europe and the Balkans, the various friends of what used to be the Bank of Niccolò fight to preserve the legacy of their wild, unpredictable founder: Nicholas in Danzig, Caffa, the lands of the Tartars and Moscow; Gelis in Ghent; Gregorio and Margot in Venice; and Kathi and her faithful Robin in Scotland and Bruges. The Bank’s branches may be officially separated, but the people remain bound together as a form of extended family; more than ever, they are all the family that Nicholas has.
From now on I have to speak of specifics and that means spoilers, so if you don’t want to know details, beware. After the last book, when I felt that Nicholas redeemed himself, I was rather alarmed to see him at the opening of Caprice and Rondo: drinking and whoring his way round Danzig with the disreputable pirate Paúel Benecke, with the air of a man hell-bent on self-destruction. Although I’m sure that there was self-awareness and self-disgust simmering under the surface at the same time, there wasn’t much evidence of it. It’s only when Kathi and Robin arrived, with the omnipresent Ludovico da Bologna, that glimmers of the old Nicholas began to reappear (thank goodness). His treatment of these friends (particularly his abandonment of Kathi to Benecke) made me angry, but I hasten to add that the character’s behaviour was making me angry rather than the characterisation itself. Nicholas, for all his faults and flaws, is beginning to feel real enough to me that I can berate him for stupidity or applaud his cleverness almost as if he were someone I knew in real life.
However, when a reader does develop an idea of a character’s personality in this way, things that don’t fit leap out all the more strongly. Take Nicholas’s wounding of Julius, for example. That didn’t feel plausible for the character: it felt like something that was made to happen because the plot needed it. I see very well why it had to happen – ensuring that Nicholas and Anna could travel alone together; giving Nicholas a reason (another reason?) not to act on his attraction to Anna – but it still felt strange that Nicholas, who is so precise and accurate, should accidentally cause such an injury. The only way I can explain it to myself is that Nicholas, even at this stage, knew that Julius was in danger from Anna and so found a way to keep him away while Nicholas and Anna made the journey to Caffa together. In that sense, Nicholas’s attack would be a method of safeguarding Julius; perhaps it simply worked more effectively than he’d intended it to, causing his apparently unfeigned shock.
I still prefer the books where the story focuses on one particular place, although I fully understand that at this stage – as all the threads unravel prior to coalescing for the final grand denouement – that probably isn’t possible. I found it difficult to get a sense of all the different places that Nicholas was visiting and I have to confess that, on this first reading, I was less interested in all the political complexities of the Venetians, Genoese, Tartars, Turks and Flemings than I was in Nicholas’s own story. While he expiates his sins by trying to establish new trading contacts around the Black Sea, his friends and family further west try to find out more about the circumstances of his birth, believing that this will enable him to come to terms with himself (and to settle the question of Simon de St Pol once and for all).
Gelis has proven to be a particularly sympathetic character in this respect: in the aftermath of her duel with Nicholas, and regretting her actions with the Vatachino, she tries to make amends by establishing the facts of his heritage so that he can gain a sense of belonging to a real family. With Tobie’s help she tracks down his aged grandfather Thibault de Fleury, who holds some of the secrets about Nicholas’s birth and who is finally motivated to bridge the gulf between himself and his grandson with a deathbed letter. Nicholas’s reply to Thibault, which must be one of the few moments in which we see him dispense with all kinds of artifice and calculation, was very moving, especially in the love he expresses for Gelis: even for a reader, it’s reassuring to see that there is nobility of soul, humanity and affection still there after all that Nicholas has been forced to suffer. And Thibault’s testimony sheds light on the nature of that suffering in Nicholas’s childhood and introduces a figure who will play a crucial role in the rest of the book: Thibault’s late-born daughter Adelina, Nicholas’s aunt and near-contemporary.
I’ve become familiar enough with Dunnett’s style to spot some of the clues and I wasn’t entirely surprised when Adelina’s identity was revealed, as I’d narrowed the options down to Anna and Phemie Dunbar. Phemie is mentioned enough in the course of the book that I feel she must have a more significant role coming up (I know her father is meant to be the Earl of March, but I’d considered the possibility of her being a foundling or swapped at birth… anything was possible!). Anna, for me, was the weak point of the book. She was a little too much the stereotyped villain, especially in the scene where, with Nicholas and Gelis at her mercy, she triumphantly reveals her identity. (It was saved from complete cliche by Nicholas’s calm interruptions pointing out that he already knows all this.) All that was lacking was maddened laughter, although my imagination obligingly supplied it.
I just don’t understand why Anna hates Nicholas so much. It’s true that she suffered horrific abuse at the hands of Jaak de Fleury while he did not; but I thought the book implied that Nicholas himself had been abused in some form by Jaak’s unstable wife Esota? Knowing nothing of the psychological cost of such an experience, I might have expected that two children sharing that kind of suffering might feel supportive of one another. Is it simply that Anna resented Nicholas’s happiness and success? Why, then, didn’t she make herself known to Nicholas and Marian de Charetty earlier on, if she simply wanted to be accepted as part of a family? Perhaps this is something that will be further explained later on. I just didn’t understand her motivations properly and I felt that she was willing to go to excessive lengths to salve a sense of injury against a fellow sufferer from her childhood. You could explain a lot by saying simply, ‘Well, she’s insane’, but while I might buy that from a less sophisticated author, I feel that with Dunnett there must be something more complex going on.
And of course Anna’s final revelation, about the identity of her foster-daughter Bonne, remains to be tested. I don’t know what I think about that yet. I’m not sure whether it matters, really: Nicholas and his friends will feel responsible for Bonne in any case. But I don’t think her planned marriage to Jodi will be going ahead. (I have my money on Jodi marrying Margaret, the daughter of Kathi and Robin.)
Speaking of children, who are the six children already born who will ensure the survival of Nicholas’s line? Jodi must be one; Margaret and Rankin of Berecrofts would make three; Marian and Lucia Vasquez or de Charetty make five; is the sixth Henry? And what about Margot and Gregorio’s child Jaçon? Furthermore, didn’t someone say something about Violante of Naxos’s child being important for Nicholas’s future? That may have been a couple of books ago and I think it was Violante – please someone, correct me if I’m wrong (or perhaps wait until I’ve read Gemini, if the correction is likely to give something away). If so, that child would surely be Nerio, even though he’s older than the rest of the children I’ve been thinking about so far. Hmm. Well, I do like a mystery. Bring on the last book…
I should finish with a roll of honour for those characters whose like we shall not see again (and obviously this will include spoilers, for anyone insufficiently deterred by the first warning). Nicholai Giorgio de’ Accaijuoli had me guessing unless the very last moment: when he joined Nicholas on the journey out of Moscow, I felt sure that the ambush had been planned by him and that his concern for Nicholas, all through the series, would turn out to be the concern of an enemy. And yet I was wrong: he turned out to be the truest kind of friend, who sacrificed himself for the life of the promising young man whose career he had followed. Then the wonderful Astorre, of whom I’ve always been fond. Although I know it’s historically inaccurate, I always imagined Astorre in a 16th-century Spanish morion as a kind of proto-conquistador, sewn eye and spade-like beard and all. I shall miss him; Thomas I shall miss less, if only because Astorre is the only character, it seems, who has never doubted Nicholas and never changed his attitude to him. I had my fears, of course, for Julius and Robin but the former fully recovered and the latter, hopefully, will do the same. Nicholas himself has, once again, been put through all manner of beatings and battles and hunting wounds and yet remains, miraculously, in one piece. I can’t make up my mind whether or not he’ll still be standing at the end of the final book.
And so we conclude in a surprisingly happy place, for Nicholas. Reunited with Gelis and his son after a long absence of self-discovery – during which he seems to have matured, accepting Umar’s death and certain facts about his past – Nicholas has also won back the cautious trust of his friends in the Bank. It looks as if the final book will take place mainly in Scotland: David de Salmeton, Jordan de Ribérac and Simon de St Pol seem to be gravitating back there (no doubt with the unpleasant Henry in tow) and Nicholas has to take the final steps to rid his family of future threats. All the way through the books I’ve been keeping my eyes open for mentions of Semples and Crawfords and suchlike; so presumably the links with Lymond will be more fully established in this last novel – as well as the truth about Nicholas’s birth. I’m not entirely won over by the twin theory, which I find slightly contrived, but that seems to be the way the story is going, if the final novel’s title – Gemini – is any judge. Still, I’m looking forward to a concluding dose of high adventure, intrigue and complex revelations. If Checkmate is any indication of what Dunnett can pull out of the hat for a final novel in a series, I’m in for a treat.
One thing’s for sure: if the de Fleury family were around nowadays, they would be a psychoanalyst’s dream…
Last in this series: To Lie with Lions
Next in this series: Gemini