What would a truthful man say? You are too honest to be trusted with some secrets. One slip of the tongue would have betrayed all I was working for. There are more threads in this web than you even know yet; more than you could understand; more than you would ever forgive.
I wonder how far I would have persisted with the ‘House of Niccolò’ books if I hadn’t already been convinced when I started them that Dorothy Dunnett is a great historical novelist. I wonder, now, how far that conviction will carry me — because the books themselves have so far failed to grip or move me. That’s not to say they haven’t interested me, or that I’m not impressed, over and over, at Dunnett’s remarkable ability to weave her intricate plots, to make deep research read like lived experience, to imagine people of great complexity. They are just demanding a kind of patience from me that, for all their own intricacies, the Lymond Chronicles never have.
I described both The Spring of the Ram and Niccolò Rising as having a slow burn, and the same is certainly true of Race of Scorpions — one of the reasons I do keep reading is that I know there will at some point be a pay-off for my attention. All three House of Niccolò books so far have paid off in climactic action, but I particularly appreciated that Race of Scorpions also paid off more personally, finally giving me more of a sense that I understand its wily and enigmatic protagonist and his motivations. In Race of Scorpions his vexed relationship with Katelina van Borselen, for instance, recovers its intensity and then reaches a poignant climax; and the introduction of Diniz Vasquez adds a dynamic that reminded me of Lymond and, say, Will Scott. More than the military campaigns and political maneuvers that make up the bulk of the novel, these threads woven through it seemed like signs of the kind of overarching pattern in Nicholas’s own development that could motivate me to read the rest of the series.
And I do need a bit more motivation, a bit of an incentive to go through another 500 pages of this kind of thing five more times. I already know, after all, that Dunnett can write passage after passage like this one, vibrant with sensory details:
The pods of the carob trees dangled, black and leaking rank gum, ripe for cropping. There were pomegranates in baskets and gourds drying on roof-tops. In every village, it seemed, a donkey circled its trough of crushed olives, and the press thudded down, helped by many brown arms, as the mash yielded its oozings through wicker. Where the scent of orange had deadened the senses in March, the resinous odour of olives weighed down the humid, hot air of this journey. Instead of flower-infused silence, the air was filled with the clamour of autumn; the cries, the chaffing, the folk-songs, the team-songs of the villages; the chinking of blades; the rumble of flint-studded boards driven over the threshing ground. The objecting bray of working donkeys. The shuddering tramp of the oxen spinning the Persian wheels set over every deep well, so that the jars came up, roped with pomegranate wood withies, and tossed their icy water into the stone channels that fed the fields and the housewife’s wood buckets. Vines and almonds, lemons and oranges, pomegranates and sugar.
I love that, but I’ve also seen it before, or very nearly. This time it’s Cyprus, but before it has been Bruges, or Venice, or Trebizond. The particulars vary, but the effect doesn’t, really. And we also get many examples of another kind of passage that to me is a lot less inviting — the kind that traces out the loyalties and lineages and special interests that are the warp and woof of Dunnett’s plots. I’ve admitted more than once that these very complicated plots are hard for me to follow. In the Lymond books, that has never bothered me much because the melodrama carries me along and because they are dominated by a few highly charismatic figures: Lymond himself, of course, Margaret Lennox, Gabriel, Philippa, Sybilla, Guzel. The supporting cast in Nicholas’s life is appealing, but not one of them really stands out to me at this point. (Greater familiarity with the series would probably change this perspective, as, perhaps, would reading the books closer together. I had trouble recalling who everybody was when I began Race of Scorpions, never mind what exactly they had been up to before.) By the end of this book, I had stopped even trying to grasp what exactly Nicholas is up to and why, besides whatever was immediate and obvious in the moment.
But that’s why the ending of this book felt so significant to me. For several pages, we are inside Nicholas’s head, intimate to an unusual degree with his thoughts and intentions — even his feelings. “He had chosen war, and had been oppressed by what he found,” Dunnett tells us, and he has experienced both love and loss; he has also found “responsibilities from which he couldn’t escape.” The literal explanations of convolutions in the action (that, characteristically for Dunnett, it turns out her protagonist has known all, or almost all, about all the while) are helpful in a practical way, but it was the orientation in Nicholas’s point of view that I valued the most. If I do read on in the series, it will be because I am curious to see where Dunnett takes him, what he grows into as this long, slow process of development and discovery continues.
This is not to say there weren’t some great, even thrilling moments in Race of Scorpions: Katelina and the moths, for example, which is a scene I’ll remember for a long time, or, in a more violent register, the long-deferred confrontation with Tzani-Bey (who did what, exactly, to Nicholas, by the way? am I right to infer that his “mistreatment” was sexual?). I was also struck — not for the first time — by the ease with which Dunnett’s world incorporates a range of sexualities. This is something that’s very prominent in Race of Scorpions, because of Zacco, but the variety and fluidity of desire is a feature of the Lymond books too. It’s certainly not typical of other mainstream historical novels I’ve read set in the Renaissance: they tend, overwhelmingly, to be organized around heterosexual romance plots, without even a hint of other possibilities. And something else that Race of Scorpions has in common with the Lymond series is an emphasis on powerful women — here, Marietta of Patras or, as she is less elegantly called, “Cropnose” (because hers has been bitten off), and her foil, at least in beauty, Primaflora. So often in Dunnett’s books, while it’s the men out in front taking action, seemingly in charge, it turns out to be the women who, behind the scenes, are pulling the strings, plotting — like Dunnett herself.
So: next up is Scales of Gold — or will be, if I read on. Once again I expect I will, though I don’t feel breathlessly impatient (as I did when first reading the Lymond books) to get my hands on it. Dunnett still hasn’t let me down — she’s too smart and skilled for that — but at this point in this series I’m also not feeling hooked.