Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett: my favorite historical novel of all time

[asa book]0375704779[/asa] This is from Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising:

He departed. So, in due course did Messer Pigello, followed by Claes and his satchel. Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it.

I have re-read this novel and the rest of the series many times, but some things never change, no matter how many times I pick them up.

First, I have to read Niccolo very, very slowly. Dunnett has absolutely no patience with lazy readers. The plot is very complex and she doesn’t coddle: you read closely, or you will be lost. It’s amazing, really, (and heartening) that these stories are so popular and widely read in a day and age where people seem to lean toward the easier options available to them.

Second, I don’t mind being a little confused and having to read slowly or even to re-read, because there are riches here to be enjoyed. She writes like a Brueghel painting: there’s so much going on, you have to dedicate all your attention but when you do, you’ll be amazed and rewarded.

Which brings me to this short paragraph I’ve quoted from Niccolo Rising. This is, of course, historical fiction. the Niccolo series starts out in fifteenth century Bruges, which was the capital city of Flanders and today is widely considered to be the best preserved medieval city in Belgium. The main character, Claes, is introduced as an awkward, good natured, good looking eighteen year old with a penchant for getting himself and others into trouble, for romancing housemaids, and mostly for surviving the beatings everybody seems to heap on him. But that’s just the early impression. Claes (who undergoes a transformation and will be known, eventually, as Niccolo) is about as complex and interesting a character I have ever run into in print.

The reason this paragraph delights me is that Dunnett manages to do so many things in a few words. She sets us up for more of Claes’ macchinations, and she also points this out, an author intrusion of the gentlest sort: Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it. She keeps the tone and the voice of the time, which is very difficult to do. Strictly speaking, this kind of authorial intrusion should be disruptive in a novel that otherwise limits point of view very strictly (which is one of the reasons the plot comes across as so complex — Niccolo has got a handle on everything, but she rarely lets us in his head, because that would give far too much away, and Dunnett intends to make the reader wait). But it works anyway. Why? I don’t know. I do know that she’s got a truly distinctive authorial voice, something that is rare and to my mind, precious.

I adore this novel. I would love to set up a wiki and take it apart, sentence by sentence, image by image, historical facts one by one.

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3 Replies to “Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett: my favorite historical novel of all time”

  1. I started this series because of the “hero characteristics” thread I stumbled upon. Finding a good book is ridiculously pleasing to me–finding an amazing series of books, like Niccolo, just about sends me out of my mind with happiness. Sometimes needing a pen and paper to stay on top of the characters is well worth it.

  2. It is an understatement to say that Dorothy Dunnett had no patience for lazy readers. I took notes when I read Niccolo Rising and I fear I still missed much of the machinations of Claes.

    I’ve been reading Spring of the Ram very slowly (it’s been a year now) and I am amazed and delighted at how well Dunnett wrote, the complexity of the story and the well-rounded characters. I have all the books in the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolo and I believe I will be reading those books until I am very very old. But they are so well written and so very good and it was completely by accident that I discovered her books.

    I am a big fan of Sharon Kay Penman, and my bookseller recommended Dunnett when I ran out of Penman books to read. And as I distinctly remember, that is also when he recommended Into the Wildnerness, which sat on my bookshelf for two years (I cannot resist acquiring books, I love the written word and a good story so much but although I read a few books a week, I can’t keep up with my purchases). And you don’t tolerate lazy writers too well either, which I appreciate immensely.

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