At the end of Temeraire, we left the eponymous dragon and his companion Laurence at a moment of triumph, having thwarted Napoleon’s dastardly attempts to mount an aerial invasion of Britain. However, their notoriety has brought its own problems. As this second instalment in the series opens, things are in an altogether more sombre key.
Laurence and Temeraire are both in London, separated by the orders of the Admiralty. Word has reached the Chinese that their prized Celestial dragon – intended as a gift to Napoleon himself – has fallen into the hands of a lowly naval captain; a diplomatic insult that cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. Ambassadors have been dispatched, led by the Emperor’s own brother, the prince Yongxing, while the British government and their Admiralty minions scramble to avoid compounding the offence. The Chinese demand Temeraire’s return, but when it becomes clear that he has no intention of being separated from Laurence, the original plans have to be amended.
It is proposed therefore that Temeraire should travel to China accompanied by his crew, with no firm agreement about what should happen when he gets there, and how his awkward association with Laurence is to be handled. Man and dragon set out together on a voyage across half the world, accompanied by their comrades and the Chinese emissaries, on a ship commanded by Laurence’s old friend Riley. As the long journey settles into its rhythm, the British and the Chinese view one another with mutual suspicion. Laurence frets about the possibility of losing Temeraire and chafes at the advice of the unwelcome Hammond, a civil servant who acts as diplomat, cultural adviser and translator. But greater dangers lie in wait for Laurence on the voyage: he will have to weather storms, sea serpents and the threat of assassination – and at the end of it all, he still has no idea whether or not the creature he loves most in the world is to be taken away from him.
Novik has bravely used this sequel to break away entirely from the subject matter of the first book. Although the training narrative and the exciting battle scenes were very successful in Temeraire, she seems to have decided that a change is as good as a rest; and instead the sequel has a slower, more lyrical feel. The pace of the book is dictated by the leisurely progress of the voyage and most of it takes place at sea, where the claustrophobia of close quarters adds to the difficulties of the mission. She also moves the focus from international antagonism (in the French-British wars) to international diplomacy (or attempts at it, anyway, between the British and Chinese).
I’m going to be moving into slight spoiler territory now, so be careful. I thought the culture clash, which plays so crucial a role in this novel, was particularly well-handled in the final section of the book. Here, in China itself, Laurence is forced to gradually reconsider his conviction about English superiority in all things. By witnessing a culture so very different, especially in the way it treats it dragons – who occupy a parallel social hierarchy to humanity – Laurence has to face the shortcomings of the British coverts and their austere treatment of the dragons in their care. Novik beautifully handles his growing awareness that perhaps Temeraire deserves to be able to live in an environment which gives him the respect due to his breed and offers him opportunities and education that would never even occur to the British Aerial Corps. Much of the book is shot through with Laurence’s inner agonising over how he should react if Temeraire is forced – or chooses – to stay, and this only becomes more intense as he realises how much China can offer: not only a congenial culture, but family and romantic bonds for Temeraire.
The affection between Laurence and Temeraire is wonderfully written and Laurence’s anxieties have a shadow of meet-the-parents nerves about them. It’s also a companionship that is convincingly balanced: Laurence is so affected by the Chinese attitude towards their dragons precisely because he has never seen Temeraire as a mere animal or beast of burden, as some of his colleagues back in the Aerial Corps do. And the plot itself balances the scales between them: if the first novel showed us how Temeraire adjusted to Laurence’s world, then in this sequel we see Laurence faced with the chance to return the favour. Throughout its spirit remains very similar to that of the first book. It is all very wholesome and, even when placed under pressure or simmering with rage, the characters are generally extremely polite to one another. Both Laurence and Temeraire, naturally, are entirely decent chaps (if I can refer to a dragon as a ‘chap’?), torn between their sense of what is politically and diplomatically right, their loyalties to one another and their own inner feelings. The writing style is still light and very engaging, with a real sense of period; and it still all reminds me slightly of Hornblower, with its well-meaning and plucky fellows at the heart of the story.
Novik certainly knows how to turn out a charming, heart-warming romp, even if – despite the originality of the concept – these are thoroughly conventional, old-fashioned adventure stories. But what’s wrong with that? These books may not join the ranks of those which have seared their way into my soul, but there are times when we all need a dose of robust, jolly escapism – and that’s exactly what these stories offer. I’ll definitely be carrying on with the series when I can. It’ll be interesting to see how Novik develops the plot now. What will the next step be? Will it be back to Britain, to engage the French? Or does she have something different up her sleeve?
Last in this series: Temeraire
Next in this series: Black Powder War