23/25 (92%) 5 stars.
Is it as brilliant as the Lymond Chronicles? No.
Am I a bit sad about that? Hm. In a way yes, in a way no. Yes because obviously I'd hoped for another emotional rollercoaster that's filled with brilliance all over the place. And no, because I see that while it isn't as excellent as The Best Series Of All Time (TM), it might get there. There are three major reasons why this isn't as perfect as Dunnett's other series, and I'll explain them in a bit, but this is still so much better than what 99% of other authors could ever create.
SO- these three differences are:
1.) Niccolò isn't Lymond.
2.) This takes place a hundred years before the Lymond Chronicles.
3.) Niccolò hasn't finished growing up at the start of this one.
Regarding point one: the protagonist in this one isn't a reckless, witty, outstandingly well-educated Gary Stu that leads a merry band of mercenaries. Instead, he's a merchant. So obviously, there are less swordfights, less battles, less high stakes. I'm not saying that Niccolò is a bad character or anything, but he's just not Lymond. Oh, Lymond. How much I wish there was just a single book more in the Lymond Chronicles... er, anyway. As Lymond isn't in this, there are almost no classical references, no witty remarks in various languages, and significantly less hilarious scenes. And while I guess this means that this series is easier to read and is more appealing to a wide readership, I could cry me a river about it. BECAUSE I LOVE THAT SHIT. That shit is a big reason why I love the Lymond Chronicles so much. I love that I have to decipher the meaning of every single dialogue, I love how it challenged me to wonder what was going on below the surface. This is still challenging, but it's not as... spicy.
Point two: this takes place 100 years before the Lymond Chronicles - and the Lymond Chronicles take place in the century of centuries, in my favourite historical time span, the middle of the 16th century. This still has a fascinating setting that is once again vividly narrated, but I'm just not that into it. The setting still gets SIX stars cause Dunnett's attention to detail is absolutely magnificent.
Point three: Niccolò isn't an adult at the start of this. Meaning: he isn't completely competent. When we meet Lymond in The Game of Kings, he's that unstoppable enigma, upsetting and outthinking everyone around him. Niccolò is on the way there, he gets there over the course of this book, but, and I realize I've come back to the start: he isn't Lymond. Oh, Lymond...
This is still an almost perfect book. Yes, it's a slow burner, but that serves a purpose. Everything's still brilliant, but it feels just... toned down to me. Because I just have to compare it to the Lymond Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles are beyond comparison. I love what Dunnett did here, I love these characters, the way this plot is constructed, I love her incredible writing style - but this didn't have me shaking from fear and it didn't make me cry. Still: a great book. And I have high hopes that the stakes will rise in the prequels. But I'm afraid Niccolò will never be Lymond, and as good as all these other characters are: they're not Will Scotts, or Jarrott Blyths, or Philippas. Also, I was a bit disappointed by the villains - too flat in comparison to what I'm used to by Dunnett. Same goes for the dialogue - it never reaches the banter between Lymond and Philippa, but let's face it, how could it?
I've probably never complained as much about a five-star-read ever before. But, well, I've given two books six stars in my life, and both were written by Queen Dorothy, so forgive me for my complaining. It sums up to this: This is an excellent book but I'd still hoped for more.
Writing Style 5