As I said in my booklog post, I’ve now read the first book of the House of Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett, and it provoked interesting thoughts about how this series compares to the Lymond Chronicles. My thoughts are mildly spoilery for both books, so they’ll go behind a cut, although I don’t think I’ll be saying anything that’s a massive giveaway. (The comment thread, on the other hand, may give away more.)
So you’re Dorothy Dunnett, and you’ve just written the highly-acclaimed Lymond Chronicles. Now it’s time for you to start something new. How do you cope with the inevitable comparisons?
She very clearly went for a protagonist who was, in his immediate characteristics, the exact opposite of Lymond. Claes is big instead of slender, easy-going instead of tightly wound. The end of the novel makes it clear he does have the capacity for bearing a grudge, but he doesn’t have an obvious vicious streak the way Lymond does. And — just to highlight the contrast — she provides us with somebody who is a great deal like Lymond, in the person of Simon of Kilmirren: blond, elegant, effective in the use of his tongue as a weapon. (During my read-through of Niccolo Rising, I found myself thinking that I wouldn’t be surprised if Simon eventually wound up somewhere in Lymond’s family tree. Having finished the book: well.)
Of course, both Claes and Lymond are brilliant, though the former is less inclined to flaunt it than the latter. They’re also both polymaths. In the case of Claes, I feel that characteristic works less well: Lymond had a nobleman’s education, which at least provides a fig-leaf of cover for why he’s so damn good at everything, but Claes is a dyer’s apprentice. And we get repeated instances of him being instinctively good at things with which he has no experience, like dealing with horses. His ability with numbers and ciphers I was more than willing to accept, but the further it goes, the more it makes me sigh.
Possibly the issue is really just that the book doesn’t engage me the same way as The Game of Kings did. chomiji and I were discussing this in the comments to the last post, and I said that Niccolo Rising gives you less reason to be engaged.
I mean, compare the two. From the first pages of TGoK, you’re given a mystery: why is Lymond in Scotland? Everybody there wants to kill him (including, before long, his own family), so clearly he must have a very important reason. And while you wait to find out, you’ve got all the tension between Scotland and England — tension which Lymond’s presence is not exactly defusing. When at long last you find out his reason, it’s one you can easily sympathize with, and understand the cost if he fails.
NR, on the other hand . . . it doesn’t start with much momentum at all. There are three guys in a floating tub, and no obvious ramifications. Dunnett’s writing is lovely, but there isn’t the starting energy that TGoK had. After a little while NR provides you with minor conflicts: Felix vs. his mother, Simon’s vendetta against Claes. Where are those things going, though? When Claes finally acquires a mission in life, it amounts to “get rich.” The larger conflict it’s connected to is off in Italy (and Turkey and so on), very distant from where we’ve spent most of the book. Compared to Lymond’s purpose, this is kind of weak — and the part of it that isn’t weaker doesn’t get revealed until basically the very end of the book.
I feel like Dunnett outsmarted herself a bit here. Had I known from earlier on that Claes was engineering a degree of revenge against those he hated, and furthermore that there was another layer to his problems with Simon, I think I would have felt a stronger compulsion to see what happened next. But she kept those cards even closer to her chest than usual, leaning on a good trick a little too hard. The result is that I just don’t care as much about what Claes might do, compared to Lymond. He wants money; okay, good for him. But I don’t know why that matters to him, other than the banal fact of money = useful. He’s a self-made man, and that’s nice, but it only goes so far.
All of this, of course, is a comparison solely of the first book of each series. I haven’t yet read further in the Niccolo series, so I don’t know where the story’s going from here, or what it might do that’s relevant to the points I raise here. On the level of their respective beginnings, however, I think Dunnett made some good character-level choices (distinguishing Claes from Lymond), but some less good choices on the level of narrative structure.