Swan Tower - Niccolo vs. Lymond

Dec. 3rd, 2012

11:12 pm - Niccolo vs. Lymond

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As I said in my booklog post, I've now read the first book of the House of Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett, and it provoked interesting thoughts about how this series compares to the Lymond Chronicles. My thoughts are mildly spoilery for both books, so they'll go behind a cut, although I don't think I'll be saying anything that's a massive giveaway. (The comment thread, on the other hand, may give away more.)


So you're Dorothy Dunnett, and you've just written the highly-acclaimed Lymond Chronicles. Now it's time for you to start something new. How do you cope with the inevitable comparisons?

She very clearly went for a protagonist who was, in his immediate characteristics, the exact opposite of Lymond. Claes is big instead of slender, easy-going instead of tightly wound. The end of the novel makes it clear he does have the capacity for bearing a grudge, but he doesn't have an obvious vicious streak the way Lymond does. And -- just to highlight the contrast -- she provides us with somebody who is a great deal like Lymond, in the person of Simon of Kilmirren: blond, elegant, effective in the use of his tongue as a weapon. (During my read-through of Niccolo Rising, I found myself thinking that I wouldn't be surprised if Simon eventually wound up somewhere in Lymond's family tree. Having finished the book: well.)

Of course, both Claes and Lymond are brilliant, though the former is less inclined to flaunt it than the latter. They're also both polymaths. In the case of Claes, I feel that characteristic works less well: Lymond had a nobleman's education, which at least provides a fig-leaf of cover for why he's so damn good at everything, but Claes is a dyer's apprentice. And we get repeated instances of him being instinctively good at things with which he has no experience, like dealing with horses. His ability with numbers and ciphers I was more than willing to accept, but the further it goes, the more it makes me sigh.

Possibly the issue is really just that the book doesn't engage me the same way as The Game of Kings did. chomiji and I were discussing this in the comments to the last post, and I said that Niccolo Rising gives you less reason to be engaged.

I mean, compare the two. From the first pages of TGoK, you're given a mystery: why is Lymond in Scotland? Everybody there wants to kill him (including, before long, his own family), so clearly he must have a very important reason. And while you wait to find out, you've got all the tension between Scotland and England -- tension which Lymond's presence is not exactly defusing. When at long last you find out his reason, it's one you can easily sympathize with, and understand the cost if he fails.

NR, on the other hand . . . it doesn't start with much momentum at all. There are three guys in a floating tub, and no obvious ramifications. Dunnett's writing is lovely, but there isn't the starting energy that TGoK had. After a little while NR provides you with minor conflicts: Felix vs. his mother, Simon's vendetta against Claes. Where are those things going, though? When Claes finally acquires a mission in life, it amounts to "get rich." The larger conflict it's connected to is off in Italy (and Turkey and so on), very distant from where we've spent most of the book. Compared to Lymond's purpose, this is kind of weak -- and the part of it that isn't weaker doesn't get revealed until basically the very end of the book.

I feel like Dunnett outsmarted herself a bit here. Had I known from earlier on that Claes was engineering a degree of revenge against those he hated, and furthermore that there was another layer to his problems with Simon, I think I would have felt a stronger compulsion to see what happened next. But she kept those cards even closer to her chest than usual, leaning on a good trick a little too hard. The result is that I just don't care as much about what Claes might do, compared to Lymond. He wants money; okay, good for him. But I don't know why that matters to him, other than the banal fact of money = useful. He's a self-made man, and that's nice, but it only goes so far.

All of this, of course, is a comparison solely of the first book of each series. I haven't yet read further in the Niccolo series, so I don't know where the story's going from here, or what it might do that's relevant to the points I raise here. On the level of their respective beginnings, however, I think Dunnett made some good character-level choices (distinguishing Claes from Lymond), but some less good choices on the level of narrative structure.

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From:la_marquise_de_
Date:December 4th, 2012 12:20 pm (UTC)
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I found the Niccolo books increasingly frustrating, because there was always the sense that Dunnett was hiding things -- and usually she was, in ways that meant the reader was plain baffled a lot of the time. This, to me, is cheating. I should reread them, but...
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 07:25 pm (UTC)
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I noticed we get Claes' perspective more in the first book than we get Lymond's (which is to say, we get it at all). And yet the book hides more. Both of the series are, ultimately, from an omniscient perspective, but I agree: it feels a bit like cheating if you hide too much while giving the protagonist's side of things.
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From:mrissa
Date:December 4th, 2012 12:34 pm (UTC)
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See, for me the "nobleman's education" excuse was flimsy when applied to Lymond--it felt like the equivalent of "I dunno, he just does"--so seeing that she did not regard this as a trait of the nobility was okay with me. Not awesome--it didn't make Claes make sense. It just was not a fig leaf on the naked truth that she wants her heroes to be able to do whatever is convenient.
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 07:30 pm (UTC)
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Hrm. I think it would bother me more with Lymond if I felt like Dunnett regarded it as "a trait of the nobility" -- if it were a class quality thing, rather than a class privilege one. I took it as the latter, anyway; Lymond's education gave him a grounding in enough things (music, languages, combat, etc) that it made it easier to pick other stuff up later.

On reflection, I think my issue with Claes was exacerbated by the fact that the characters around him think he's an idiot rather than a genius, so they kept commenting on how remarkable it was that he does X, Y, and Z well, along with A-G and also M.
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From:occultatio
Date:December 4th, 2012 02:13 pm (UTC)
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So on the whole I don't think the Niccolo books are quite as good as the Lymond ones, but the series is still very, very good overall. I actually see Claes as a sort of pre-being-betrayed Lymond -- I think they have more in common than may be immediately apparent, beyond just the polymath thing.

Agh there is more I want to say in response to your frustrations but I fear it will spoil things. I will content myself with: while some of the things you are frustrated with now are legitimate complaints, others may turn out to be deliberate (and, in my opinion, justified) obfuscations on Dunnett's part. This series, like Lymond's, picks up more and more momentum as it goes along (and doesn't even have a mid-game slump like Queen's Play).
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 07:34 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I don't mean to say that I think this is bad. And yes, it's hard to evaluate what's a justified choice and what isn't on the basis of only part of the picture. (Especially since NR is less self-contained than TGoK: it's obviously a setup for more.)

You have a good point about Claes being pre-betrayal Lymond, actually. We see that side of Lymond when he's with Christian, early on in TGoK -- the brilliance and humour and so on without the vicious streak. I don't know that he was ever as easy-going as Claes is, even on the surface, but then he was also never in Claes' social position. And that was one of the things I found interesting in this book: the way Dunnett understands that a servant/employee in that time period had to be willing to roll with the punches. He was not free to say "screw you, I'm not putting up with this" -- not without serious consequences.
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From:sartorias
Date:December 4th, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC)
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I never did make it past the first one, though I think I have several of them on my shelves for In Case.
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC)
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It took me two tries to make it through this one, though (as I said before) that's largely because I missed the bit on the cover copy that noted for my benefit that Niccolo's last name was vander Poele. I figured out pretty soon that Claes had to be the main character -- but I did spend time wondering (which delayed me getting invested), especially since I was expecting somebody more like Lymond. Claes' intelligence and skill take a while to show through, and until then, he's not a very interesting protagonist to me.
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From:sartorias
Date:December 4th, 2012 07:56 pm (UTC)
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He didn't ever get interesting to me--nobody did. It was kind of like the upscale, intelligent difference between the first Star Wars crawl, which talked about rebellion and desperate situations, and the crawl before the prequel, which was a dull thing about political and trade squabbles with a lot of names thrown in.
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
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Hah! Okay, that's a fitting analogy. I was trying to leave the trade-squabbles thing out, because I recognize that I Do Not Like Economics, and therefore any book that's focused on such things won't interest me as much. It isn't necessarily a reflection on the book's quality. But yes, for sheer sexiness of topic, these kinds of prequels do seem to fall short.
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From:kitgordon
Date:December 4th, 2012 03:55 pm (UTC)
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I was introduced to Lymond first, then Niccolo, which means (according to the responses of other readers) I should prefer the Lymond series to the House of Niccolo--but it didn't turn out that way. I enjoy both, but when pressed to choose, I feel more engaged with Niccolo as a character and with the series. This conversation occurs regularly on some of the Dunnett discussion lists of which I'm a part, and it's always entertaining. My daughter, in contrast, read Niccolo then Lymond and prefers the latter. Must be in the genes.
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 07:38 pm (UTC)
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I'm curious what your reason for preferring Niccolo is, if you can give it without spoilers. Is it what bryant said below, about him being someone with more room to grow internally?

But yeah -- I'm not surprised this is a perennial debate among her readers. :-)
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From:kitgordon
Date:December 4th, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I pretty much agree with Bryant. Lymond is essentially fully formed in GoK, even though he still has to go through some significant changes by the end of the series. Nicholas is on a journey of becoming, and I also found him more attractive because of his beginnings: a lower-class/middle-class hero is (as a general rule) more interesting to me because such a character has more to work against. The books are huge, but I never felt frustrated. I knew that Dunnett was playing games (because some readers enjoy them), but the story and the characters were compelling enough that I always just kept reading (at least until I had to stop because Caprice and Rondo hadn't yet been published). Nicholas always seems more approachable to me than Lymond--someone you could actually have a conversation with; with Lymond, I'd feel intimidated!
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 08:48 pm (UTC)
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True, Claes is more approachable, and much less privileged in his starting position. But, well, see my responses to bryant below, if you haven't already: I think Dunnett hides what makes Claes compelling for too long (some of it isn't even in the first book, apparently). I may come to like him a great deal more than I do now, but she withheld too much in this book for me to really engage the way I could.
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From:bryant
Date:December 4th, 2012 06:01 pm (UTC)
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I'm on Team Niccolo. For me it's the difference between a protagonist who's becoming and a protagonist who already is -- Lymond's story is externally directed, and Niccolo's story is really internal.

That said, I more or less agree with your first book comments. The Niccolo books sprawl; I always feel like Dunnett wanted to write a travelogue and that does weaken the focus. Seeing so much of the world of the era through Dunnett,s lovely prose compensates for me, but I'm not blind to the slow pace.
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 07:42 pm (UTC)
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Interesting. I see your point about Claes having more room to grow, especially on a series scale. I think the difference for me is that in TGoK, Lymond has something he needs. Not wants; needs. His character is mostly formed already, but there's a great big hole in it that he's trying to fill, and that gives his story more urgency. Claes, on the other hand, is just beginning to find his footing, and if he has that strength of feeling regarding his motivations, it doesn't come through -- there's nothing to equal, or even approach, the raw intensity of Lymond's conversation wtih Richard after Hexham. So while he probably does have much further to grow than Lymond ever did, my starting impression of him is much less immediately compelling.
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From:bryant
Date:December 4th, 2012 08:03 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, that's 100% true. Dunnett is relying on the mystery -- and probably on the faith her readers have in her -- to carry them through the really murky waters of the first book. Claes wants all kinds of things and he wants them very badly, but Dunnett made the stylistic choice to hide them from the reader. That's an elegant mirror of the fashion in which Claes hides his motivations from everyone around him, of course. It's also a problem for the new reader.

I'm really curious to see if you think it pays off in later books.
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 4th, 2012 08:46 pm (UTC)
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Dunnett hides a lot from the reader with Lymond, too; she just doesn't hide it as long. You're about halfway to 60% through TGoK when the pieces start slotting into place, telling us why Lymond is in Scotland, and why it's something we should support. Claes' motivations get hidden until the very end, and even then, whatever intensity is there doesn't get communicated. Whether it pays off in later books or not, I think it's a structural flaw; for better or for worse, many readers are going to judge the series by how the first book goes. You can only ask them to trust you that there's something awesome behind the curtain for so long.

I will grant, however, that the scene of Claes' friends figuring out just how goddamned dangerous he is, was pretty funny. :-)
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From:bryant
Date:December 5th, 2012 12:34 am (UTC)
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I concur entirely. Spring of the Ram gives you a lot more insight into what's going on, but you're still not going to reach the main driver of the series by the end of it.
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From:swan_tower
Date:December 6th, 2012 06:44 am (UTC)
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I guess I don't so much need the main driver for the whole series (you don't get that for Lymond until, what, book 4?), as a clear driver for the character.
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