Writing History, With Swordplay

whitefacehorseI’m looking at Dorothy Dunnett’s brilliant, swashbuckling Race of Scorpions, a novel that turns about the 15th Century dynastic war in Cyprus. She is wise not to drop us into Cyprus immediately. Her hero Niccolo is never easy in his allegiances, and his machinations will be so clever and transformative that we need a larger arena of action to bring the historically necessary factions of the Italian city-states into play. She begins:

“That November, God sent snow to northern Italy, to the inconvenience of all who had to travel on horseback.”

Trouble, the promise of genre and a smile in the first sentence. Nice. Furthermore, it’s going to be hot in Cyprus so she starts us off up to our withers in snow. Dorothy Dunnett continues,

“The Way between Poretta and Bologna became choked, and only the robust cared to use it. Among these was friar Ludovico de Severi da Bologna who set out from Poretta one evening in a mood of ferocious good humour.”

Ludovico will cause hero Niccolo a lot of trouble, and his journey shows that he is a brave and strong antagonist. The words “ferocious good humour” give us an antagonist who thinks he’s a good guy and is capable of anything.

Ludovico’s arrival, structurally, must herald change and shake it up for Nicco. And the friar had better have a good, resonant reason for it. He does. He’s coming to the rescue of an orphaned heir. Who doesn’t want to help an orphaned heir?

Now, having set up the restless money-loving hero Niccolo gambling in an inn, Ms Dunnet has him overtaken by Ludivico, at this point the herald of the conflict:

Nicholas flung down the dice. The door burst open. A bulky man stood on the threshold in a pool of fresh snow and strode forward, striking his cloak from his shoulders. His bare feet, encased in wet sandals, had tufts of black pelt on each toe. He said, “Messer Niccolo vander Poele. Remember me, boy?”

A perfect herald. How will Ms Dunnet use this first interaction to show us what a money-loving political manipulator and swordsman Niccolo is? How will our hero react to the friar’s entrance? Hopefully, he’ll be cool.

Nicholas heaved a great sigh and rose slowly. He said, “I could never forget you, Thomas. Fra Ludovico da Balogna, the man who means to drive the Turks out of Europe. Did you collect the money you needed?”

“Have your joke,” said the monk.

Ludovico hitches up his robes and sits himself down with a clank of his sword, and my happiness is complete. It’s going to be a great story.

Thanks, Dorothy Dunnett. I love visiting the Renaissance to look at narrative structure with you.

Dorothy Dunnett, A Race of Scorpions. Penguin Books, London. 1989.


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