Black Powder War: Naomi Novik

★★★★

Temeraire: Book III

It’s been a long week at work and so I decided it was time for another Temeraire novel. This series has become my comfort reading of choice at the moment, as it so perfectly combines very good writing with spirited adventure. Opening a new Temeraire book is the literary equivalent of curling up with a warm blanket and a cup of tea. This, the third after Temeraire and Throne of Jade, reunites us with our heroes in China as they prepare to begin the long journey back home to England aboard the Allegiance. However, a destructive fire in the ship’s galley before they have even left port, coupled with the arrival of a dogeared but urgent letter from their commander, forces Laurence to change his original plans.

They are ordered to travel via Istanbul to collect three dragon eggs which the British government have bought at great expense from the Ottomans and, with these close to hatching, it is vital to reach the Bosphorus as soon as possible. With the Allegiance still under repair and with the sea route promising a long and convoluted voyage around India and Africa, Laurence and Temeraire decide it will be quicker to fly overland. Yet maps cannot begin to convey the vastness of the distance they must cross: barren sweeps of desert, where the days are unbearably hot and the nights frosted with ice; hostile grasslands where bands of nomadic horsemen resent the intrusion of strangers; and the forbidding mountains rippling up between the continents, where dragons remain feral and unused to men. Temeraire and his crew don’t travel completely alone: they take with them as their guide the secretive, half-British, half-native Tharkay – who may well have an agenda of his own. And their journey is given extra urgency not only by the promised eggs but also by the discovery that others have gone before them out of China: namely the white Celestial dragon Lien, robbed of her captain in Throne of Jade and driven by grief, fury and loathing to become Temeraire’s bitterest enemy.

Throughout the series I’ve enjoyed the lively, pitch-perfect prose but I think this is the first time that I’ve realised exactly how good Novik’s writing is. Her narrative is both pacy and poetic and her characters all have distinctive, plausible voices in their dialogues. Their speech is slightly, charmingly stilted by the polite conventions of the time, but this isn’t any shortcoming in the writing itself. It’s a treat just to be able to abandon yourself to the story, knowing that there will be nothing to jar you out of the spell. It’s interesting to see how Novik is beginning to play more and more with political notions of freedom, slavery, right and duty and it looks as though the fight for dragon emancipation might be a parallel struggle to that of abolition. It’ll be intriguing to see how Temeraire gets on with his startlingly liberal notions in later books.

As well as the beautiful writing and the thoughtful asides, however, this novel has a strong sense of momentum, which I felt was slightly lacking in Throne of Jade. There we spent slightly too long trapped on a ship and not long enough in the interesting dragon-centred culture of Novik’s alternate-universe China (well, not enough to satisfy my curiosity anyway). Here in Black Powder War, however, we move across the breadth of Europe and have the opportunity to see wide swathes of Novik’s world, studded with exciting bursts of swashbuckling adventure as Temeraire and his crew hunt down dragon eggs and once again find themselves face to face with the dreaded Bonaparte. If I were to be critical, I would say that the final section in Prussia went on for a bit too long and the pace did begin to flag slightly here, but Novik wraps it up with a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.

I’m also beginning to discern the driving forces of the series as a whole. Much as I enjoy Laurence and Temeraire’s adventures on a case-by-case basis, it still strengthens the story to have an overarching plot that ties all the different instalments together. Naturally this paragraph might include some minor spoilers, so please beware. In Black Powder War we finally see the emergence of a particular villain – not the general enemy represented by the French and by Bonaparte, but a figure who is specifically determined to thwart Temeraire in every way possible. This is, of course, Lien, whose intellect and tactical genius are formidable weapons (as one would hope for in a worthy adversary). Her allegiance with Bonaparte, stimulated by her personal hatred of Temeraire and expressed through her development of the French aerial corps’s military strategy, promises to raise the stakes to a whole new level.

And Lien isn’t the only new(ish) character who promises to play a significant role in the rest of the series. I certainly hope the delightful Iskierka is going to be a fixture, because she’s rather fabulous. Tiny, determined, belligerent and thoroughly adorable, I imagine her as the equivalent of an overexcited terrier, with added unpredictable bouts of flame.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the rest of the series, then I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t find this one just as much fun. Once again Novik has managed to avoid repeating herself and to come up with a fresh and original storyline. As I’ve said of her other books, it’s good old-fashioned wholesome fun and, especially at this time of year, eminently suitable for cosy escapism. If you’re also reading these books, please do drop in a comment to share your feelings on them – it’d be lovely to find out what others think of them.

Buy the book

Last in this series: Throne of Jade

Next in this series: Empire of Ivory

14 thoughts on “Black Powder War: Naomi Novik

  1. Heloise says:

    You are really tempting me to get these books… but I think I'll still hold off until you reach the point where the series' quality supposedly takes a nosedive. 😛 Still, you make the first three volumes sound like a lot of fun, and I'm particularly of the stylistic mimicry of period language she appears to be doing – I love it when an author does that. (Which, on a side note, makes me wonder whether you've ever read Steven Brust's Phoenix Guards? It's kind of a Fantasy pastiche of Dumas' Three Musketeers and Brust delivers both the style and the attitude pitch-perfect – huge fun, if you're into that kind of thing.)

  2. Arno says:

    Dear Leander, I haven't visited your site for a long while, owing to some troubles with my own innards as well as with my old computer. The computer died, I am still alive. C'est la vie.

    Now I am curious about your interest with the Vikings. Have you find a copy of *Frans G. Bengtsson's* novel *The Long Ships* which I recommended to you?

    Cordially your's, Arno Ahonius

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Arno – oh, I am sorry to hear you've not been well and even sorrier to hear about the demise of your computer, but I presume from your comment that you are now feeling better? I regret to say that I haven't got my hands on a copy of “The Long Ships” yet, because I already have several books lined up to read (well, 'several' is probably the understatement of the year), but I'm very much looking forward to it, and thank you again for the recommendation!

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Aha! But what if the quality doesn't take a nosedive? *quizzical interrogative stare* Seriously though, they are fun and they're well-written and the characters are for the most part rather endearing. Just as you would in naval or military fiction, you really come to care about the different people in the crew, not just about the captain and the dragon. I think Novik's doing a brilliant job, for the moment anyway.

    As for “Phoenix Guards” – no, I haven't, but I think you did recommend it to me a few months ago and it is safely tucked away in my mind as something to seek out when I have a chance. Obviously the phrase 'fantasy pastiche of Dumas' Three Musketeers' means that there is no doubt that I want to read it. I am rather amused by the fact that you have the grace to add 'if you're into that kind of thing'. (I think we all know that I am…)

  5. Arno says:

    Dear Leander, never mind — as long as you keep the novel in your long waiting list. I don't watch much TV (I prefer reading) but I happened to see the right part of the American history series, about king Harald Bluetooth's times, and I am happy to report that there was nothing contrary to what Mr. Bengtsson writes in his splendid novel.

    Thank you for asking about my feelings. There are still some test results to wait for, but I am feeling quite optimistic. And my new computer is much better than the late lamented one!

    Cordially your's, Arno

  6. Heloise says:

    lol, if it doesn't, then of course I'm going get the whole series a.s.a.p. while cursing you with all kinds of flowery expletives for making me add even more stuff to my TBR shelf. 😛 – But there seems to be an almost universal agreement that the series has rather outstayed its welcome by its later volumes. so I'm not too concerned yet. Of course, I still might get the first three volumes…. 😛

    And as for the addendum at the end of my last comment – I guess I'm still a bit shaken by discoverin that you're a fan of Haruki Murakami and are not averse to steampunk. Both of those came as a bit of a surprise, so I'm wary of making assumptions just now. 😉

  7. Heloise says:

    I can actually second that recommendation – admittedly it was a very long time ago that I read Bengtsson's novel (in German translation, Die Abenteuer des Röde Orm), I think I was still a kid, but I still remember exactly what the cover looked like and how thick it was and that it was a rousing adventure tale that I was very enthusiastic about. Hmmm, maybe I should read it again some time…

  8. Arno says:

    Dear Heloise, thank you for your support. If you reread the book, please stay with the German translation! The English one, though accurate enough, is wooden and coloured with the translator's deep hate of Vikings.

    Cordially your's, Arno

  9. Leander says:

    The translator's deep hate of Vikings? Is that true? How extraordinary. If he hated Vikings, why on earth did he decide to translate this book, I wonder?

    Mind you, as I discovered with The Etruscan, so many books would benefit from new English translations…

  10. The Idle Woman says:

    Arno – very glad to hear that the new computer is an improvement, and I shall keep my fingers crossed for cheerful test results.

    Heloise – thanks for seconding Arno. This has definitely moved up the list – I just need to get hold of a copy and then I'll be ready to go, once I've got some other books *ahem* out of the way.

  11. Arno says:

    Dear Leander, “If he hated Vikings, why on earth did he decide to translate this book, I wonder?” I suggest the simplest motive: Money. He happened to know Swedish and some history. I have lost my copy; so I can't even remember his name, or give specific examples but that he starts the novel quoting Kipling's poem about the black-hearted murderers. As for the wooden style I remember his inelegant translation of Arabic curse “ass-mare's servers!” as “copulators of female asses”!

    It just seems that some people can cherish a hatred for a thousand years!

    Cordially, your's, Arno

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