It’s because of books like this that I’m Reader with capital R, and why that’s such a big part of what defines me. Dorothy Dunnett is a genius, so once again here I am (as always after reading one of her books), struggling to write a post in which I’ll never be able to do justice to her awe-inspiring work.
Before going into the plot let me just say that Scales of Gold has one of the best, most unexpected and emotional endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I felt those last pages physically - punch-in-stomach, hairs standing up, pupils dilated.
If Dunnett could be see me at that moment I’m sure she’d have a little victorious smirk on her face, because for over 500 pages she expertly and purposely took me along, getting me to feel exactly what she wanted me to feel, think what she wanted me to think, just so the end could turn my world upside-down. Just as she planned from page one (I’m not the only one feeling this, but unlike Stephanie I’m a masochism and loved the gut-wrenching moment). Like I said: genius.
But about the plot. There’s great freshness in reading historical fiction that’s not yet again set in Tudor England or Second World War wherever. Scales of Gold picks up right after our hero Niccolò manages to escape Cyprus. It’s 1464 and he’s about to enter yet another crazy commercial endeavor, this time to the heart of Africa, towards Timbuktu. Were you ever curious about what The Gambia, Guinea and Mali looked, smelt and sounded like in the 15th century? This book is your chance.
Accompanying Niccolò is an entourage of extraordinary characters that include a Flemish missionary who wants to evangelize Ethiopia, a confident and intelligent young woman who blames Niccolò for the death of her sister, her formidable Scottish companion and an ex-slave with a mysterious past.
This unlikely group of companions is led by a crew of experienced Portuguese sailors down the Coast of Africa and into the barely mapped “Dark Continent”. The plot is intricate, the setting is lush, and the succession of adventures kept me on the edge of my seat for hours.
The Discovery Period was an interesting time that encapsulated the best and worst about us: an ode to human spirit and bravery, but it also marked the beginning of globalized slavery and colonialism (the best of times and the worst of times?). Dunnett explores this very well by getting a group of well-developed characters with different visions of the world in (literally) the same boat, experiencing the same hardships and pleasures.
Despite its horrible consequences, the romantic Portuguese in me, fed from childhood on poetry about my country’s immortal deeds, cannot but admire the spirit of the Discoveries. The image of the lonely caravels braving the Unknown always got me a bit teary. There’s a quote in Scales of Gold that really encapsulates this. Niccolò is at Sagres Point, Europe’s Western-most point:
Standing at Sagres, or on the single Cape that lay westward, one looked down sheer sandstone cliffs twenty times the height of man with the white of dashed foam at their feet; and abroad at the flat, shoreless oceans, upon which laboured the flecks that were vessels and the infinitesimal specks that were souls, witness to man’s perseverance, his greed and his courage.
What else can I say? It’s a marvelous book, full of wonder and characters you grow to know as if you were also in their boat, surrounded by the vast Ocean, or part of their caravan, slowly making its way into deep Africa, in search of legendary riches.
Other thoughts: I’ve been reading lately (yours?)