Temeraire: Book IV
Returning to the Temeraire series after a few months’ absence, I’ve been delighted all over again by the combination of old-fashioned adventure and simply beautiful writing. I suspect that the appeal might begin to pall if you read this whole set of books in one go, but when taken at intervals between heavier or grittier books it has the effect of a reviving tonic. It’s impressive to reach the fourth book of a series and still not see any sign of the author’s spirit flagging. If anything, Novik writes with ever greater relish as she expands the boundaries of her world and, with her exquisite command of language, it’s always a pleasure to travel along with her.
We rejoin Laurence and Temeraire where we left them at the end of Black Powder War, struggling home from the Prussian battlefields with their cargo of rescued soldiers, pursued by Napoleon’s aerial corps. As they sweep in from the Channel, accompanied by their little band of ferals and by the little spitfire Iskierka, they can’t understand why none of the British Corps are flying out to back them up: the sky remains ominously dark. And soon, when they land and find the coverts deserted and Laurence’s fellow captains gaunt and in despair, they begin to understand why. During Temeraire’s extended absence (remember that we last saw British soil in the early part of Throne of Jade), the British dragons have been stricken with an awful fever – a kind of flu – from which, as yet, none has recovered. But, when it becomes clear that a cure may exist in South Africa, Laurence and his crew gamely set out with the depleted numbers of their old formation, in the hope of finding a way to save their friends and comrades. Their path will lead them deep into the African interior, where they will discover unimagined wonders… but also (as you would expect) grave peril.
If Throne of Jade gave us one alternative dragon-culture to place up against that of the British Aerial Corps, Empire of Ivory offers us another. Among the African peoples, dragons are no less central than they are in Chinese society, but their role is very different: they are treated as guardians of the tribe’s history and entrusted with the memories of a particular ancestral line, to the extent that dying chieftains are considered to have been reborn as dragons. It’s a tantalising concept. I really do think Novik is a splendid world-builder: she creates cultures which seamlessly blend history, plausibility and fantasy and the final result is something which feels completely natural and robust. And magnificent too: her honeycombed city of ivory cells, presided over by a dragon-King and nestled beneath the thundering torrents of a vast waterfall, is a location that will stick in my mind for a long time.
Every time I read one of these books I talk about how warm and cosy and good-natured it is, but darker forces or themes are beginning to make themselves known. The parallels between the slave trade and the treatment of dragons in the Aerial Corps have been bubbling under the surface for a couple of books, but here they become explicit as abolitionism develops into a key aspect of the plot, and we see some of the effects of the slave trade at first hand through the experiences of the missionary Reverend Erasmus and his wife. It would be interesting to hear from anyone who’s read this book who is familiar with 19th-century colonial politics in Africa (because, quite frankly, I’m not). How far, I wonder, is Novik tweaking her alternate universe? To what extent is the slave trade and, more crucially, the possession of the African colonies going to be affected by what happens in this novel? How many tiny adjustments has she already made that I’ve missed, which might develop into huge changes later on? If nothing else, the prospect of finding out would keep me reading. But there’s one more underlying theme which is coming into its own, and that is the enduring conflict between man as an individual being, governed by his conscience, and man as a social being, governed by the rules of his society. This results in a striking cliffhanger ending, as Laurence finds himself torn between duty and conscience, loyalty and humanity. What, after all, is true nobility?
All in all, this was a little infusion of joy: happiness in hard covers. My one complaint was that Iskierka was left behind in England and so I missed her terrier-like impetuosity, but I hope I’ll get to see more of her in the next book. It’ll be interesting to see where Novik takes this next, because she has left the story in a situation where it would be difficult for everything to carry on as was. While I appreciate her desire to introduce darker, more serious themes, and I think they add a certain piquancy to the story, it would be a shame if they undermined the winning formula she’s created.
Last in this series: Black Powder War
Next in this series: Victory of Eagles