Scales of Gold

by Dorothy Dunnett

Reviewed by David Maclaine

Scales of Gold takes Dorothy Dunnett's faithful readers to the halfway point in her series on the adventures of Nicolas vander Poele, who began the series as a dye-shop apprentice, but whose dazzling mind has already raised him to great fortune and high honors by the time this novel begins. His adventures so far have taken him eastward from mercantile Bruges to the palaces and battlefields of Italy, on to the last embattled outpost of the Byzantine Empire, and an island kingdom riven by civil war at the frontiers of the Christian world. Now he heads west, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and toward the strange new lands opened up by the explorations of Henry the Navigator. Soon his ships must battle rivals on the shores and in the rivers of Africa, where his company has sailed in search of a fabled treasure. His companions include his devoted ally Loppe, once a slave from these very shores, the determined priest Godscalc, and a young man and woman bound to him by family ties, whose attitudes toward Nicolas are, well, complicated. But a grueling journey into the African interior will change all of them in almost unimaginable ways.

The strange new landscapes into which Nicolas journeys may be the most dazzling settings yet in a series full of exotic places, and the emotional journey he and his companions undertake is perhaps the most intense of the series so far. The recurrent truism that appearances can be deceiving proves more apt than ever in Scales of Gold, and the path from despair to hope to happiness and back again has never before involved such swift and wrenching transitions. The losses this time around are perhaps the most painful yet in a series that never hesitates to put its hero and his friends through the wringer. The emotional impact of the ending proves profound indeed. (1992, 519 pages)

More about Scales of Gold at Powell's Books or

Other novels about merchant travelers:

The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover (2008), about a widowed Venetian Jew whose uncle sends him to buy jewels in the Burmese merchant town of Pegu in 1598. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Leo the African by Amin Maalouf (1986), about Hasan al-Wazzan, or Leo Africanus, a sixteenth century Moroccan geographer and his travels through the Mediterranean world. More info

Caravan to Xanadu by Edison Marshall (1953), an adventure novel about Marco Polo. More info

Nonfiction about explorers and Africa:

Prince Henry 'the Navigator': A Life by Peter Russell (2001). More info

Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 by John Thornton (2005). More info

Africa Explored: Europeans on the Dark Continent, 1769-1889 by Christopher Hibbert (1983). More info


Prince Henry the Navigator at the PBS website

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