This is the fourth book in the House of Niccolò series and my favourite so far. As always, I have done my best to avoid any major spoilers in this post but would still advise newcomers to the series to start at the beginning with Niccolò Rising and work through the other novels in order.
This book begins as Nicholas vander Poele returns to Venice from Cyprus following the events of Race of Scorpions. Facing financial problems and threatened by powerful new business rivals, he soons departs for Africa in search of a new source of gold. With him on the journey are his kinsman Diniz Vasquez, Bel of Cuthilgurdy (Diniz’s mother’s companion), the priest Godscalc who hopes to bring Christianity to the African tribes and reach the fabled lands of Prester John in distant Ethiopia, and Gelis van Borselen whom we first met as a thirteen-year-old girl in Niccolò Rising and who now blames Nicholas for her sister Katelina’s fate.
With the help and guidance of his friend Loppe, a former slave, Nicholas and the others sail down the African coast, a voyage fraught with danger as they find themselves racing against another rival ship. More trouble awaits them when they arrive in Africa – it’s important for those who know the location of the source of gold to keep it a secret and strangers from Europe are treated with suspicion and distrust. And that’s really all I want to say about the plot. Like all of the other novels in this series, Scales of Gold is very complex and intricately plotted, so I won’t go into any more detail but will leave you to enjoy Niccolò’s adventures for yourself.
One of the things I love about the House of Niccolò (and Dunnett’s other series, The Lymond Chronicles) is the range of unusual and exotic locations the books take us to. The period the Niccolò books cover (the second half of the 15th century) is a period I’m very familiar with in terms of English history, having read quite a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Wars of the Roses and the reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV. However, I have to admit that I know almost nothing about what was going on in the rest of the world during the same period and it’s been a delight to be able to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge – some of the places we’ve visited so far in this series include Bruges, Trebizond and Cyprus, all of which have been wonderful to read about. Although parts of Scales of Gold are set in Europe (the first few chapters take us from Venice and the glassworks of Murano to Portugal, Spain and Madeira) a long section of the story takes place in Africa. Historical fiction novels set in Africa are not very common and I loved learning about all the places Nicholas and his companions passed through on their journey, especially when they arrived in Timbuktu, yet another location I knew absolutely nothing about! I had no idea Timbuktu was once such an important centre of trade, culture and learning.
It’s also good to know that as far as the historical detail is concerned, I can trust that it will all be as accurate as Dorothy Dunnett could make it. In each book Nicholas meets a host of real historical figures and becomes embroiled in a series of real historical events, although his actions are never allowed to directly change the course of history. Scales of Gold, like all good historical fiction novels should, leaves me wanting to do some extra research of my own into some of the fascinating topics covered in the book.
Finally, any discussion of this book can’t be complete without mentioning the shocking cliffhanger ending! I was kicking myself because earlier in the story I had suspected something of that sort might happen but then I decided I had misjudged the character concerned and changed my mind – and so I was completely stunned by the revelations at the end, just as Dunnett had intended us to be. Outwitted yet again! Looking through some other reviews of this book, it seems people either love the ending or feel cheated by it. Personally I fall into the first group: I love it when an author surprises me, making me believe first one thing and then another, especially if the clues were there from the beginning. Anyway, I’m glad I already have a copy of The Unicorn Hunt at hand so I don’t have to wait too long to find out what happens next and how Nicholas will deal with what he has learned!