Tuesday, 16 February 1999

Dorothy Dunnett: Caprice and Rondo (1999)

Caprice and Rondo coverEdition: Michael Joseph, 1999
Review number: 211

The seventh Niccolo book starts as his various businesses are trying to recover from the revelation of his activities in Scotland and their probably effect on the country's economy, he himself being exiled from Western Europe on pain of having these activities made public. So he goes to Poland, where he embarks on a life of debauchery until the arrival of his old friend Julius, seeking to set up a business of his own there, distracts him. After he accidentally nearly kills Julius, Niccolo sets off on a journey of expiation, joining Julius' wife and the friar Ludovico de Bologna on his mission to stir up trouble for the Turks who pose such a threat to Christian Europe (during the second half of the fifteenth century).

The scenario is a fairly familiar one to those who have read earlier instalments in the series. Niccolo is gifted (to a positively unnatural degree), but flawed by a lack of moral purpose. He lives life as though he is playing a game in a rather self-indulgent way, very much for the moment regardless of the long-term consequences. Now that the long battle of the previous books is over, he is now fighting with himself to some extent, to overcome the consequences of his rather Pyrrhic victory.

Niccolo is remarkably like Dunnett's other major hero, Lymond. Both are immensely gifted (to an extent that they are difficult to believe in if you stop and think about it); both are willing to go outside the normal methods of living accepted by society; both have really difficult family backgrounds; both (particularly Niccolo) spend considerable time in parts of the world which form unusual settings for historical novels of their periods - Russia, Turkey, Africa. They are really one character rather than two, the main difference between the settings of the two series being that the Lymond novels are more romantic, the Niccolo ones more gritty.

Dorothy Dunnett owes a great debt to the works of Fernand Braudel dealing with the growth of commerce at the end of the medieval period; at some points, the Niccolo books read almost like a novelisation of some of his historical writing. This is a reasonable way to write a historical novel, to set characters (real and unreal - the series has an immense cast of both) walking through some of the most well known academic histories of the time. It also provides a way to test the historical theories, if the novelist is as good as Dunnett; if it seems wrong for your characters to act in a particular way, then the history shouldn't make them act that way.

One more criticism of this generally excellent novel (which doesn't apply to the other Niccolo books) is that Dunnett indulges in the rather pointless anachronism of the title of the novel and its parts which refer to pieces of music or plays (assuming that Circassian Circle is intended as a reference to The Caucasian Chalk Circle) hundreds of years later in date. I found this rather irritating, particularly as there seems to be no reason for it.

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