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First impressions of Niccolo Rising, Ch. 1-11

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Warning: I may have been spoiled for a crucial point that seems important to the rest of the novel -- whoops -- so you probably shouldn't read this unless you've finished the whole thing.






I found the first chapter of Niccolo Rising a little hard to follow at first, because I felt assaulted by detail. I haven’t read a novel in a while, and the last few I read were in a more colloquial style. I adjusted to it fairly quickly, though, and now I kind of like Dunnett’s crescendoes of information. But I did remember that you told me she likes to play with her readers, and I think you can see that in even small details. For example, on page 2 in my edition, this moment made me blink:



"He drank. He inhaled. His nostrils were indigo blue."



Meanwhile my brain is saying WHAT? Indigo blue!? But in the next paragraph you get enough information that helps you understand how/why that is so:



“Julius refrained from agreeing. A dyeshop apprentice would find any change nice.”


Then you think, “Oh, so they are literally indigo blue from the dyeshop – coated with dust in the air, perhaps.” But it strikes me (esp. as a new fiction writer obsessed with how much info to offer, and how, and when) that Dunnett could have been a hell of a lot easier on her readers, there. Imagine if she had said “his nostrils were indigo blue from breathing in the dust at the dyeshop” or some such thing. That would have worked. Instead she chooses to startle.


Another thing that kept distracting me throughout the first few chapters was trying to find Niccolo. And it’s strange, because I knew the book is going to be about this Niccolo person, but I also latched on to Julius as potentially one of the more important characters in the book, almost to the point where I wanted to adopt him as the main character himself, simply because Chapter 1 was focalized through him. Ha! It soon becomes clear that he’s a minor player, at least in the first part of this book.


So, I kept looking around impatiently for Niccolo. Hmph. How many damn characters were going to parade across the pages, anyway? Where the hell was this book going? It seemed to be mostly about the de Charetty family, but the narrative follows other characters like Katelina, too. Okay then. I felt off balance, like I just wanted ONE character to focus on and root for.


Then I sort of cheated.


Well, I blame the back of the book. I didn’t mean to cheat. I think I was in about chapter 5 when I noticed it -- the blurb/summary of the plot. Well, my copy talks about “Nicholas vander Poele of Bruges, the good-natured dyer’s apprentice who schemes and swashbuckles his way to the helm of a mercantile empire.”


Well! I knew enough to figure out that there’s only one dyer’s apprentice, and that’s Claes. (And somewhere early on his last name is mentioned as van der Poele.) So Claes=Nicholas! Tada! And d’oh! Now I see how much the book has been about Claes all along, despite the deliberately misleading first chapter. Dunnett’s so clever! She makes you underestimate him, and then he surprises you with his hidden talents. That, it seems, is the story of Claes/Nicholas’ life – being underestimated. So you end up judging him the way people always judge him—hastily, by surface qualities—then only later learn the error of your first impressions.


So my question to you all who’ve read the whole book already is: when did you figure out that Claes=Nicholas? Did the blurb on the back of your book tip Dunnett’s hand? I feel like I wasn’t supposed to figure this out, yet. But perhaps if I had been a more perceptive reader in the first place, I would have figured it out.


The first moment I did a double-take of Claes was in his conversation at Adorne’s house with the Greek nobleman Acciajuoli. The second time was in his first conversation with Marian de Charetty. It became clear that he knew more than he let on and acted more thoughtfully than he appeared to. (I’m still not 100% sure what he was up to with the bath/cannon sinking and Waterhuus sabotage—why did he do that? To deliberately help the people who didn’t want that cannon to get there? I must be dense. But I do think that I get that he schemed a lot of things that others took to be accidents. Interesting.) Of course, once I made the Claes=Nicholas connection I gave him my full attention. By the time we learn that he has two other job offers besides the widow’s once he becomes eighteen, it’s really quite clear that he is very talented and has actually impressed some very important people.


Other random thoughts:


*I had a lot of fun googling “hennin” and “pourpoint” and other terms I didn’t know. I love clothes and I love historical details. (I am thankful that Google makes it fairly easy for me to get pictures and research information very quickly, though.) It is also neat that she uses real people: Elle already mentioned Arnolfini of the famous Arnolfini Marriage portrait with the heavily-pregnant wife, little symbolic dog, and convex mirror; in the Wikipedia page I looked at, one of the pictures illustrating “hennin” was a portrait of Maria Portinari of Bruges, 1476-78. I forget, has Dunnett mentioned the Portinari family at this point? Will we ever get to meet this character? I know it’s set in 1460, but still. That would be cool.


What words/subjects did other people research when you were reading this?


*At this point I’m not sure I’m very attached to Claes, even though I know he’s Nicholas. I did feel for him in the fight vs. Simon and when M. de Fleury was so casually cruel to him. Other people seem to like him a great deal, and not just children, though, so while I don’t adore him myself at this point, at the same time I know he’s likable. I feel like Dunnett wants to keep this distance between me and Claes right now. I suppose eventually that will cease to be the case, and more will be focalized through the eyes of Nicholas himself.



Overall, it’s been fascinating! I definitely want to keep reading. Plus, an allusion to the Roman historian Livy’s account of Hannibal crossing the Alps at the beginning of chapter 12 really made my classicist heart skip a beat. :)
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On June 9th, 2007 04:47 am (UTC), bop_radar replied:
I had these visions of having to go back to Boppy and say 'Honey, I don't GET IT?'. LOL.
*lmao* Read my comment below and be reassured. *G* I seriously almost hated him on first read (of Book 1).
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On June 9th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC), dionusia replied:
Heh, it's good to know I wasn't the only one thrown a bit off-balance by Dunnett's narrative techniques. I can't wait to finish the whole book and read your post.

I stuck a blank Post-It to the back of Book II so my eyes wouldn't drift to the blurb.

Haha! That's a fabulous idea. I think I'll do that too!

Also, I'm hoping that I'll be more comfy with terms that crop up in the Italian section. I know Rome the best, but I've also been to Florence once, briefly. And my experience of visiting Venice actually helped a lot with picturing Bruges' canals and bridges. Ooo, I love Italian history.

Claes is very difficult to approach, isn't he? I wasn't sure I liked him either at first. I had these visions of having to go back to Boppy and say 'Honey, I don't GET IT?'. LOL.

Hee. Yes, I had it in the back of my mind always that Nicholas is one of Bop's favorite all time characters, perhaps trumping even Lee Adama, so I keep saying to myself: "There's going to be more about this fellow soon, right? I'll probably fall in love with him eventually..."
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On June 9th, 2007 04:45 am (UTC), bop_radar commented:
Wheeeeee!!! OMG, I love you SO MUCH right now! *crushes* Your account of reading these first few chapters is so honest and insightful. It takes me back to my own first experience...

Dunnett could have been a hell of a lot easier on her readers, there.
I remember the blue nostrils! You're absolutely right. She could have, but I think she constructs it this way on purpose. It has a dual effect: it assumes knowledge on the part of the reader, which helps her world feel 'complete' and presupposed, sort of like immersion language techniques. *g* It also keeps the reader on their toes and teaches them that they should be questioning things and that Dunnett drops clues, you have to be very engaged as a Dunnett reader. And then even if you are she still surprises you!

So, I kept looking around impatiently for Niccolo. Hmph. How many damn characters were going to parade across the pages, anyway? Where the hell was this book going? It seemed to be mostly about the de Charetty family, but the narrative follows other characters like Katelina, too. Okay then. I felt off balance, like I just wanted ONE character to focus on and root for.
HAhahaha! SO true! I tried to follow Katelina, I even hooked in to Simon as the potentially dashing (but bastardly) suitor. I know what you mean--she really doesn't give her readers a clear lead. I'll just say that when you've finished the whole series, you will think back on those earlier chapters and see them in a very different light. *g*

And d’oh! Now I see how much the book has been about Claes all along, despite the deliberately misleading first chapter. Dunnett’s so clever! She makes you underestimate him, and then he surprises you with his hidden talents.
It happened to me too. The blurb thing, I mean. And yes, it is Claes, and it's so cleverly hidden. I kind of HATE blurbs on Dunnett's books. I heavily recommend you never read them again--there are major spoilers. Worse than this one! I learnt that the hard way myself.

: when did you figure out that Claes=Nicholas? Did the blurb on the back of your book tip Dunnett’s hand? I feel like I wasn’t supposed to figure this out, yet
I think it's different for everyone. Where it happened for me was on the trip over the Alps and then (finally) once they get to Italy. If I recall correctly it was around then that I turned to the blurb to confirm my suspicions that Claes = Nicholas.

I’m still not 100% sure what he was up to with the bath/cannon sinking and Waterhuus sabotage—why did he do that? To deliberately help the people who didn’t want that cannon to get there? I must be dense.
You are NOT dense! His motives are opaque and remain so for a long time. It's hard to deal with at first but I recommend relaxing a little and trusting that more will be revealed in time.

The Portinaris DO come into it!

At this point I’m not sure I’m very attached to Claes, even though I know he’s Nicholas. I did feel for him in the fight vs. Simon and when M. de Fleury was so casually cruel to him.
Yes, you are right. Dunnett deliberately creates a distance between the reader and Claes at first. I didn't like him much either. I read the books when I was about 22-23 and I'd been dumped by a boy and was NOT inclined to like an uber-confident, cheeky, promiscuous apprentice who seemed to get women falling over themselves for him but who also seemed to have ulterior motives and perhaps a streak of cruelty in his sense of humour. Like you, my moment of sympathy in this early stage was in his fight with Simon.

It's interesting though that we learn that Claes IS likeable (especially to women and kids) before we really feel him to be that ourselves. It's definitely to do with the perspectives through which we view him.

Omg, I am filled with GLEE at this post!
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On June 9th, 2007 06:41 pm (UTC), dionusia replied:
Oh, I'm glad you liked my post -- it's reassuring to hear that you had similar opinions about the novel and Claes at this stage. :) Dunnett does leave you feeling distinctly like you're not a very perceptive person, so I was a bit hesitant to post my thoughts.

It has a dual effect: it assumes knowledge on the part of the reader, which helps her world feel 'complete' and presupposed, sort of like immersion language techniques. *g* It also keeps the reader on their toes and teaches them that they should be questioning things and that Dunnett drops clues, you have to be very engaged as a Dunnett reader. And then even if you are she still surprises you!

I agree with all of that, and I'd also add that it immerses us in a very engaging fashion into the way European society operated -- sizing up people by status/clothing/occupation/surface qualities is very important, but rank was something you could transcend with enough talent. Also, her narrative style mirrors the layers and layers of intrigue in that world--only the truly powerful are fully 'in the know' about what's really going on, and everything is sure to have a scheme behind it. (When the distance between Nicholas and the reader disappears, will I feel more in the know? I mean, obviously Dunnett will continue to surprise me, but I think I'll feel rewarded in that my knowledge of what's actually going on will always be increasing.)

I tried to follow Katelina, I even hooked in to Simon as the potentially dashing (but bastardly) suitor. I know what you mean--she really doesn't give her readers a clear lead. I'll just say that when you've finished the whole series, you will think back on those earlier chapters and see them in a very different light.

Ah yes, I would have liked to follow Katelina more! She's interesting. I am looking forward to going back and re-reading everything, even though I haven't even finished this book, yet. It seems like a novel (and a series) which has two lives -- the first experience, then the second.

Cool to hear about the Portinaris! How long did Dunnett research these books? What resources did she use? Fascinating.

One thing I did think was odd to be missing up to this point was any indication of characters' religious views (or lack thereof). I know this era is usually tagged with "The Rise of Secularism" in the history books, but still, it left me wondering. There's the teensiest bit about a possible Crusade, but hardly any personal/deeply felt beliefs. Does that ever enter into it?
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On June 10th, 2007 10:36 am (UTC), bop_radar replied:
her narrative style mirrors the layers and layers of intrigue in that world--only the truly powerful are fully 'in the know' about what's really going on, and everything is sure to have a scheme behind it.
*nods* Absolutely! It makes you feel like part of the world--and it both engages and confounds you.

When the distance between Nicholas and the reader disappears, will I feel more in the know?
It changes, definitely, though probably not in the way you're expecting. I can't say more without being spoilery, but yes, it does help when you're not off-centre from Nicholas any more.

I am looking forward to going back and re-reading everything, even though I haven't even finished this book, yet. It seems like a novel (and a series) which has two lives -- the first experience, then the second.
Ohh, definitely! When I got to the end I was torn on whether to re-read or keep reading! And then when I got to the end of the series I rushed back to the start...

How long did Dunnett research these books? What resources did she use? Fascinating.
She read hundreds of books--I think it took about ten years. :-) She had the most incredible brain!

There's the teensiest bit about a possible Crusade, but hardly any personal/deeply felt beliefs. Does that ever enter into it?
Ohh, fascinating! Because yes, it does. It's clever of you to have picked up on its absence so far. I think that Dunnett chose to plunge us into the merchant culture where people are already thinking in commercial terms, but religion is there beneath the surface and the characters can't escape it completely.
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On June 9th, 2007 06:38 am (UTC), bitterlatinist commented:
I hadn't quite read far enough yet to learn for sure that Claes was Niccolo. You're clever for figuring it out from the blurb. I was suspicious that he might be the main character, having read the Lymond chronicles and Dunnett's Intro that specifically points to Niccolo as his precursor. His language abilities, skill at mimicry, and amazing understanding of the intricacies of Bruges politics and society made me suspicious. (Not to mention his way with the ladies). ;)

How many damn characters were going to parade across the pages, anyway? Where the hell was this book going?

Word. The barrage of characters at first is unsettling; eventually (assuming it's somewhat like the Lymond books) the complex relationships between all of them will become clear. I wasn't really into the Lymond books until I nearly finished the first book and then after that I had to have the next one on hand as soon as I finished. Good thing I have 1-4 of the Niccolo books on hand for my crack fixes.

Also picking up c_mantix's comment below:
Novels these days telegraph major plotpoints and endpoints way too much.

ITA. I'm a big fan of mystery novels and I'm always sooo disappointed when I figure it out half-way through. I especially love that Dunnett always has multiple twists and I almost never see them coming.


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On June 9th, 2007 04:35 pm (UTC), bitterlatinist replied:
That really sucks that the blurb spoiled the book for you before you'd even started reading. You would think that especially with mystery novels they would know not to give away the ending.

On the flip side, I am also annoyed when I pick up a book while browsing and there is no blurb whatsoever. I want just a little info to help me figure out if it's worth shelling out $15-20 for a paperback and there's nothing.

BTW. LOOOVE the Booklust icon. I enjoy listening to Nancy Pearl's book reviews on the radio.
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On June 9th, 2007 06:45 pm (UTC), dionusia replied:
It's interesting that Dunnett has a typical main character type. I'm glad I didn't really spoil you. :) And I'm jealous that you have volumes 2-4 already! Darn! I'm woefully behind in all things Dunnett.

Why can't folks write a good blurb (or create a good movie/TV ep promo) without spoiling EVERYTHING important? I feel very resentful of teasers, most of the time. I think it's possible to pull off a nonspoilery blurb or promo if they'd just put a little more thought into it.
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On June 10th, 2007 10:42 am (UTC), bop_radar replied:
Same! I agree that they could get it right but don't.

There are similarities between Lymond and Niccolo but they are also very different. The similarity is more in the way they are constructed then in their character, imo. In both series, Dunnett masks their motives and nature in mystery. And both are geniuses. She likes that. ;-)

I think in many ways it helps to come to Niccolo 'fresh', so don't worry that you haven't read Lymond. Lymond is lighter, frothier and slashier--it's great, he's possibly the ultimate romance hero, but ... it's not Niccolo. ;-p *extremely biased*
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On June 13th, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC), suffolkgirl commented:
I first read Niccolo Rising 15/16 years ago, so struggle to remember my initial opinions a bit, but I know I was similarly waiting for Niccolo to show up.

The blurb on my copy gave away that it was one of the three in the boat at the beginning, but like you, I latched on to Julius. It wasn't until at least halfway through that I realised Niccolo=Claes (and it's there in the name, because Claes/Claus is a short form of Nicholas, but then Dunnett has a habit of making me feel dense!). Her books are a challenge to read.

Dunnett could have been a hell of a lot easier on her readers

She could have, but she doesn't. You have to keep up (and look things up), but I like how she assumes her readers have the intelligence to do so. And it's fun spotting all the subtle clues she drops.

I feel like Dunnett wants to keep this distance between me and Claes right now.

I remember feeling like this too, though by the time I got to the end of Niccolo Rising certain events had made me warm up to and root for him. I think Dunnett does this deliberately as she does a similar thing with Lymond in 'Game of Kings' - I think it's because she likes to present the surface/public image of her hero to the reader first and then gradually show the person underneath.

Look forward to seeing what you think of the rest of the book. Will have to go and dig out my copy.
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