This is the second book in the eight-volume House of Niccolò series. In the first book, Niccolò Rising, we saw how Nicholas, a young dyer’s apprentice, rose in the world to become head of the Charetty trading company. In The Spring of the Ram, Nicholas and the other men of the Charetty company – including the doctor Tobias, notary Julius, priest Godscalc, engineer John le Grant and mercenary leader Astorre – journey to the Black Sea port of Trebizond to establish a trading post. With them every step of the way is Pagano Doria, a sea adventurer who has married Nicholas’s thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Catherine de Charetty, and is now in a position where he may be able to seize control of the company through his marriage.
One of the things I love about Dorothy Dunnett’s books is that they give me an opportunity to learn about people and places I might never have known anything about otherwise. Dunnett’s novels open up whole new worlds, focusing on periods of history and geographical locations that are usually ignored in historical fiction. This is the first book I’ve read about Trebizond, a final outpost of the Byzantine Empire which at the time the story is set (1461) is under threat of falling to the Turkish army at any moment, and I thought it was a fascinating setting. I loved all of the beautiful descriptions of Trebizond and the other places Nicholas and his companions pass through on their journey to and from the Black Sea coast. This, for example, is the moment when the two ships belonging to Doria and Nicholas finally arrive at Trebizond:
So there came to the poisonous honey of Trebizond the two vessels from barbarian Europe, the four months of their travelling over, and winter turned into spring. One after the other, they crossed the wide, irregular bay towards the green amphitheatre which lined it. In its midst, the classical City gleamed on its tableland, alight with marble and gold against the dark mountain forests behind. There stood the fabled City, treasure-house of the East.
I enjoyed The Spring of the Ram much more than the first book, Niccolò Rising, possibly because I’m more familiar with the characters now and so found it easier to get straight into the story. And of course when I first started to read Niccolò Rising it was inevitable that I was going to compare it with Dunnett’s other series, the Lymond Chronicles, however hard I tried not to, and although I liked Nicholas and Marian de Charetty, most of the other characters seemed to me to be less interesting than the ones in the Lymond Chronicles. It seems that I just needed to give myself time to get used to them though, because now that I’ve read two Niccolo books I feel that I’m starting to get to know and understand some of the characters better. Nicholas himself continues to amaze me with his complex machinations and intricate trading deals, but despite the amount of time we spend inside his head in this book (which is more than we were ever allowed to spend inside Lymond’s) his character and motivations still remain a bit of an enigma to me. Most of what we learn about him is through the observations of the people around him – Tobie, Godscalc and the others – but we have to remember that none of them truly understand Nicholas either and have a tendency to misinterpret his actions.
All of Dunnett’s books are clever, complex and intricately plotted; this one, I thought, was particularly complicated because there seemed to be so much happening behind the scenes, so many different forces and factions all vying against each other, pulling in different directions and trying to turn things to their own advantage. The main trading powers – Venice, Florence and Genoa – are all rivals with conflicting business interests, then there are the various rulers and leaders – Emperor David of Trebizond, Uzum Hasan of the White Sheep Tribe, Sultan Mehmet II of the Ottoman Empire, and others. Members of Nicholas’s family also seem to have agendas of their own, and finally there are Violante of Naxos and the mysterious Greek with the wooden leg, both of whom are also trying to control Nicholas’s actions. With so much going on, I won’t pretend that I fully understood everything that was happening in the book because I certainly didn’t, but as with all of Dunnett’s novels I’m looking forward to reading this one again!
It has taken Niccolo a bit longer to win me over than it took Lymond but I’ve been pulled into his world now and have already started the third in the series, Race of Scorpions.