Fiction – audiobook. Read by Gordon Griffin. Whole Story Audiobooks, 2013. Originally published 1986. 26 hours, 16 minutes. Purchased.
Set in Bruges in 1460, the first book in Dunnett’s eight-partThe House of Niccolòseries introduces readers to Claes, a teenaged dyer’s apprentice who was raised from the age of ten by his employer, Marian de Charetty. Claes believes himself to be the legitimate son of Simon de St. Pol of Kilmirren, a Scottish lord who claims Claes (or, Nicholas van der Poele, as he is sometimes call) is a bastard born to his first wife.
As Claes tries to establish his identity among the upper class of Flemish and Italian society, he uncovers a plot to create a monopoly around “alum”, an important mineral whose trade from the Ottoman Empire has been restricted by war. The Pope has instructed his followers to find a new alum mine, but a number of wealthy merchants are trying to inflate the price of alum, either by hedging their bets within the waring courts or purposefully failing at locating a new mine.
Meanwhile, a young woman named Katelina van Borselen returned from a trip abroad without a husband, much to the consternation of her father and the shock of Flemish society. Katelina despises the idea of marriage; at one point, she says she’d rather be a widow than a wife or a maid,
But Claes’ alleged father desires to marry her and beget sons with her. Sons who will thwart Claes’ inheritance claim and end his rise within Bruges’ society. Except, by the time Katelina marries Simon of Kimirren, she is already pregnant with Claes’ child.
I went into Dunnett’s novel with high expectations thanks to rave reviews from book bloggers whose taste tend to align with my own, especially when it comes to historical fiction. Unfortunately, this is one series where my taste diverges greatly from other reviewers: I found the story difficult to follow, full of meandering plotlines and a complex web of characters whose names and characteristics are difficult to keep straight.
The one standout character for me was Katelina; she seemed so modern compared to the society around her, and her scenes – few and far between – were the only ones to grab my attention.
I muddled through the rest, and even had to flip back in the print copy to reread the avalanche mentioned on the book’s back cover because the event failed to register as I listened to the audiobook. The emotion and pacing of the plot are incredibly static; I never felt excitement or a sense of adventure as the story progressed. It is difficult to say, though, how much of this is due to Dunnett’s writing or Gordon Griffin’s narration.
Halfway through the book, I decided to seek out a summary of the novel in order to help ground me in the story. I wasn’t able to find one online, but I did find a couple of sites stating that Dunnett recommended readers read the books in the order they were written, beginning with the Lymond Chroniclesand then reading The House of Niccolò. So, if my experience hasn’t scared you off of Dunnett, then perhaps following her wishes will provide a far better reading experience than my own.
This is my fifth book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased a print copy in 2016 at a used book sale, but decided to purchase to the audiobook in March 2018 when the small print started to strain my eyes.