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.
Last in this series: Throne of Jade
Next in this series: Empire of Ivory