In 15th-century Bruges, commerce is intimately linked to power: the more astute and skillful the merchant, the greater his position in society. So while nobility and ancient bloodlines are still important, ordinary men and women have unprecedented opportunities to raise their social standing. This novel follows the fortunes of Claes, a dyer’s apprentice whose easygoing demeanor disguises an extremely shrewd mind. Among his friends and employers, Claes is regarded as little more than the village idiot, which makes it all the easier for him to obtain useful knowledge simply by keeping his ears open and his mouth shut. When he learns about a risky business opportunity that could result in a huge payoff, Claes doesn’t hesitate to act on the information. But his quest for riches causes him to offend some powerful people, including a Scottish nobleman who has both financial and personal reasons to hate Claes.
Dorothy Dunnett is one of those authors I really want to like. I’ve heard great things about her books, and I love well-written historical fiction, so I thought she would be right up my alley. But when I tried the first book in her Lymond Chronicles a few years ago, I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I was hoping that this book from a different series would work better for me, but unfortunately it didn’t. My first problem was the number of characters; there are too many people to keep track of, and there’s a lot of hopping between different points of view. Secondly, I couldn’t figure out what was happening for a large portion of the novel. Dunnett likes to allude mysteriously to things instead of describing them directly, which I found incredibly frustrating. I didn’t understand even the main plot until the book was almost over! I think Dunnett’s intention was to build suspense and then have a big reveal at the end, but in my opinion, the resolution didn’t make up for the hundreds of pages of confusion I had to endure first. I did enjoy the setting of late medieval/early Renaissance Bruges, but I wouldn’t recommend this slog of a book to anyone!