To Lie with Lions is the sixth volume in the House of Niccolò series and although I loved it, this is not the place to start if you’re new to Niccolò. To be able to fully appreciate this book, you really need to have read the series from the beginning and, in particular, you need to read the fifth book, The Unicorn Hunt, before this one. To Lie with Lions picks up a lot of the threads from The Unicorn Hunt and in some ways I thought they almost felt like two halves of the same novel, so please be aware that if you haven’t read all of the previous five books yet you will encounter spoilers in the rest of this post.
In To Lie with Lions, Nicholas de Fleury returns to Scotland with his wife, Gelis, and son, Jodi. On the surface it may appear that he and Gelis have been reconciled; in reality, the mysterious ‘game’ they are playing is about to enter its final stages. Meanwhile, as Nicholas continues to make himself indispensable to the young King James III of Scotland and his court, he also becomes embroiled in the conflict in Europe between the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy – but which, if either, is he really working for?
Previous books have dealt with the trade of alum, silks, sugar, gold and slaves; this book looks at the trade of another commodity: stockfish (dried, unsalted fish). To find these supplies of fish, Nicholas must embark on a sea voyage to Ultima Thule – Iceland and the Westmann Islands. As usual, he has more than one reason for this trip, and to make things even more interesting, the Bank of Niccolò’s rivals, the Vatachino and Anselm Adorne, as well as Paúel Benecke of the Hanseatic League, are also on their way to Iceland. There were a lot of dramatic scenes and set pieces in this book – a walk through the ducal château of Hesdin where traps and practical jokes lie around every corner; a game of Florentine football on the castle walls in Edinburgh; skating on the frozen Nor’ Loch – but it was this excursion to Iceland in the middle of the novel that I found the most memorable. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing in this section of the book, bringing to life all of Iceland’s distinctive natural features – the glaciers, geysers, hot springs and volcanoes – and the wildlife – the eagles, ‘white bears’ and ptarmigans. The descriptions of the volcanic eruptions are stunning and made me think how much more frightening and awe-inspiring such phenomena must have been in Nicholas’s time.
“The Mouth of Hell opened when they were a long way out to sea, and the glacier over Katla lifted its city of ice into the sky…Now, you could no longer diminish what was happening by translating it into human dimensions. This was not a play. This was the hurling into the sky of thousand-ton blocks of ice, glinting and roseate in the thundering night. This was the discharge of millions of gallons of boiling water, plunging down from the mountain in a wild dashing glitter, outrunning the billows of its own pink-flushed steam.”
As with all of Dunnett’s novels, there are things that seem confusing at the beginning but have taken on new meaning by the end of the book. Among other things, we finally discover, after endless hints about ‘the game’ Nicholas and Gelis were playing, what it was all about and what each of them was hoping to achieve; we learn why Godscalc had been so determined to keep Nicholas from returning to Scotland; and the reason for Nicholas’s reaction to the Nativity Play he had worked so hard on and received so much praise for. After disliking Nicholas throughout most of The Unicorn Hunt, I found him more likeable again in this book, rather like Tobie, who returns to Nicholas’s side filled with hope that perhaps he is not beyond redemption after all. Tobie, with his ever-changing opinion of Nicholas, is someone I can definitely identify with! We do see some evidence of Nicholas’s warmer, more human side again in the relationships he forms with Kathi Sersanders and Robin of Berecrofts (two of my favourite characters) in Iceland and in the effort he makes to bond with Jodi.
It seems, though, that Nicholas often gets so carried away with the intricacies of his elaborate machinations that he forgets, or ignores, the fact that his schemes are affecting real people’s lives. And after feeling so much more sympathetic towards him during this book than I did during the last one, the revelations in the final chapters caused me, like many of his friends and colleagues, to become disillusioned with him again. Still, I was pleased that the contest between Nicholas and Gelis had finally come to an end and I was left with the feeling that one episode is over and a new one is about to begin.