This dense historical fiction starts with a barrage of names and characters reminiscent of the panic-inducing first chapter of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Unfortunately, the barrage doesn’t seem to let up and I spent most of the book feeling both unable and unwilling to follow all the subtle intrigues and sift through previous pages for hints about who that one guy is and what on earth his cryptic comments mean. At first, I blamed myself for reading too quickly or not being smart enough to understand the intricacies of the story. Then, I started to suspect that the author was responsible for the frustrating obscurity with which the book tangled along and purposefully used inscrutable characters to half-hint at important aspects of the plot through scenes and conversations that would only make sense in retrospect (if then).
In addition, I didn’t feel that the author did a very good job of integrating the story with its historical setting in 15th-century Bruges. The characters didn’t feel real, the dialogues all felt very modern and there were those dreaded episodes where “history” happens, G. A. Henty style–the story is paused so that a dry list of historical events can take place, consisting of stuff like Duke So and So having a battle with ex-King What’s His Name over some historical province that I can’t be bothered to take out an atlas to locate. For a story that hinges on character development (this is only the first of eight books in the series about Niccolò, a bastard dyer’s apprentice who makes his way to the top of the food chain), there wasn’t much development. Yes, some of the characters were complicated, but mostly because they acted unpredictably and inconsistently. Dunnett seems to think that it’s deep to make a character act out of character, but if the action is not a result of believable motives and growth, then the effect is off-putting, not illuminating. I didn’t really like or understand many of the characters in the book and certainly can’t face reading the second book in the series.
Now, I am no fan of historical fiction in general, so I can understand that Dunnett has many loyal admirers and I can even imagine a reader who might adore this book: someone with a long attention span, lots of free time and an unhealthy interest in the prosaic details of historical economics and politics (or at least, a willingness to be bribed into tolerance of these details by the promise of a sex scene or two).
[Why I read it: it was passed on to me in defeat by Tom from choir (whose reference in conversation to Tom Jones happily inspired me to read that classic), who in turn received it from fellow choir member Paula.]