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Minireview: Tongues of Serpents, by Naomi Novik

Tongues of Serpents is the sixth book in Novik’s “Temeraire” series, and it’s very much a transition piece. The previous book, “Victory of Eagles”, wrapped up most of the earlier major storylines, and saw Lawrence & Temeraire get exiled to Australia – a better fate than getting executed as traitors, but an ignoble one nevertheless.

Once they arrive after an uneasy sea voyage, they find the prison colony of New South Wales in turmoil; the previous governor has been overthrown and the political situation is unstable, to say the least. To escape, Lawrence and Temeraire enlist on a surveying expedition, which quickly becomes a rescue mission once a dragon egg gets stolen. The bulk of the book deals with the search & rescue expedition, and the discoveries hidden in the depths of the Australian desert.

While there are lots of potentially great story elements here, it doesn’t really come together. The sense of urgency and great impending events is gone here, and I got the feeling that the author herself was slightly at a loss of where to take the story next, other than “lets fly around alter-history Australia a bit”. It is, quite frankly, a fairly dull book, and adds very little to the main plotline. There are nice bits here and there, but nice bits do not a good book make if the main bulk is meandering and repetitive.


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Minireview: Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik

In the fifth book in Novik’s “Temeraire” series, Victory of Eagles, lots of plot threads converge. In a way, this is the end of the series; if this was a TV series, this would be the finale of season one. Of course, since it’s not the end of the series, the TV series comparison is even more apt: season two is currently airing. In any case, the book (again) continues more or less directly from where the last book left off. Events have taken an even more grim turn, with Laurence imprisoned and due to be executed with charges of treason, and Temeraire confined elsewhere. Grim times for the British in general, with Napoleon finally making his push for the invasion of England, and London looking more and more like a lost cause.

It’s once again a great read. Laurence is an even more morose and grim character, but there are occasional flashes of levity here and there. Temeraire is becoming more and more radical (as far as the “traditional” thinking in English dragons goes), and begins to insert himself into politics with… interesting results. The depiction of the invasion is told in sweeping scale, with occasional snapshots of individual action as seen through the eyes of the protagonists. There’s a more final resolution to things here than we’ve gotten accustomed to in the previous books; as noted, this feels like a “series finale”. And it’s a good one.

It will be interesting to see where the (book) series goes to from here.

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Minireview: Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

Empire of Ivory is the fourth book in Novik’s “Temeraire” series, detailing the adventures of Captain William Laurence and “his” dragon Temeraire, of the British Aerial Corps. The plot continues some time after the events of the previous book: Lawrence and Temeraire are safely back in Britain, but Napoleon is pressing onward on the war front and it seems that most of the British dragons have contacted some sort of deadly disease. Because lack of air support would mean easy pickings for Napoleon, the primary goal of the Corps becomes keeping up the illusion of strength, all the while their dragons are in dire straits.

As a small glimmer of hope, Temeraire himself remains healthy, and a memory from their earlier voyage towards China, by boat, leads some to conclude that a possible cure lies somewhere on the coast of Africa. It’s a slim chance, but it’s better than nothing. So off they go, back towards the “dark continent”, looking for a cure. What they find is something more. Given the history of the slave trade, in which Britain is also complicit, Europeans have many enemies in Africa… and some of those enemies are not weak push-overs.

Like the previous books, it’s a well-written adventure tale. Some of the events stretch credibility a small bit… but hey, we are talking about an alternate-history tale with dragons in it, so I’m willing to forgive some unlikely events in the service of a classic adventure tale. Since this is a more modern tale than the old “white man goes to tame black Africa and bring civilization” stories of yore, the portrayal of native peoples (and the “white man” protagonists) is also more nuanced and contains scales of grey instead of “good guys” and “bad guys”.

If you liked the previous books, chances are you’ll like this too. It continues the story and takes it in some new directions, some of which will have repercussions later.

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Minireview: Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik

Black Powder War, book 3 in the “Temeraire” series, is a bit of an interlude book. It’s not bad; like its predecessors it’s a page-turner and there’s a lot of fun action. Nevertheless, the story here doesn’t stand on its own, and consists of several quite unrelated episodes.

The book begins with Temeraire and Lawrence’s return voyage from China, which (due to scheduling reasons) becomes an overland journey towards Istanbul. The beginning is quite hastily narrated, and quickly sets the expedition on the road. Things don’t go quite as smoothly as hoped, of course, and the group arrives in Istanbul worse for wear…and faces the fact that their presence there may be just manipulation from their enemies. After shenanigans concerning the local palace grounds and certain dragon eggs, they all flee towards Prussia. On arrival, they are (naturally enough) enlisted as part of the war effort, and get to see Napoleon’s tactics upfront. The book doesn’t really have a proper ending, it just fizzles out after Lawrence and Temeraire flee for their lives (once again).

It’s not a bad book, and it sets the stage for the next book in the series. However, the fact that most of the book is just narration about the main characters’ travel from China to Europe, with little unifying main plot other than the voyage itself and some distinct local conflicts, leaves the book feeling less solid than the previous two.

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Minireview: Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

Throne of Jade is the second book is Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series, which depicts an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars, with dragons. After the surprisingly good debut novel, this second book actually managed to be even better. In the first book I wondered why the dragons, being smart and invaluable creatures, put up with “just” serving in someone’s army… and here that question starts to be explored, from the viewpoint of the main characters (Captain William Laurence and Temeraire, the dragon).

After the events in the first book, it’s become clear that Temeraire is something rare and special, an “Imperial” dragon from China, meant as a present for Napoleon himself. Outraged with Temeraire’s bonding with a mere soldier, the Chinese Empire is now demanding that Temeraire be returned to China, at once. And, because the British Empire fears that the Chinese might ally with the French, they agree to the return. To their chagrin, Temeraire flatly refuses to part from Laurence… so in the end, both end up on a ship bound for China, accompanied by a partly hostile Chinese delegation.

The action stalls a tiny bit in the middle, though the sea voyage is far from boring. Someone is apparently trying to kill Laurence, and various nautical disasters threaten everyone on board. In the end, they arrive in China and meet a new set of problems… and a totally alien culture.

I liked the fact that the Chinese aren’t totally stereotyped. While we’re shown them through the eyes of Laurence as alien and strange, their culture and way of life is shown as a nuanced thing, very different from what the Brits are used to but not necessarily worse (and, shocker, in many ways better). Laurence is forced to revise many of his preconceptions, and in the end both he and Temeraire are changed creatures – with some new, powerful enemies.

Like the first book, it’s a page turner, and a very well-written and somewhat old-fashioned adventure tale.

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