Tongues of Serpents (2010): Naomi Novik


Temeraire: Book VI

Speaking of dragons, it’s been ages since I caught up with Temeraire and his captain Laurence in Naomi Novik’s lovingly-created alternate Napoleonic history. Luckily the library had just the right book at the right time and so I plunged in with gusto. Novik’s novels choose a different part of the world each time, to add variety both to the adventures and to the kinds of creatures we encounter: for this is a world full of dragons, serpents and other strange creatures. And our heroes’ current location is home to some of the strangest creatures even without the blessing of fantasy: as the curtain rises, we find gentleman and dragon newly arrived in Australia, exiled as punishment for their supposed treason. But it’s a sensitive time in the colony and the sudden arrival of two dragons (not to mention three soon-to-hatch eggs) adds a new frisson to the prickly aftermath of the Rum Rebellion.

William Bligh is not a fortunate man. Having already been mutinied against by the crew of his ship, the Bounty, he has been appointed Governor of New South Wales; only to lose that position too in 1808, when a cabal of military men and wealthy settlers (led by Major Johnston and the charismatic John MacArthur) seizes power. This much is all historical fact, and it’s a tribute to Novik’s careful research that she weaves her story so tightly into ‘reality’. One could argue that perhaps Bligh’s misfortune was his own doing, for being a fairly useless manager, and he certain proves to be a most unpleasant companion. When Laurence, Temeraire and their companions arrive in Australia, Bligh hopes that they will reinstate him and spends his time whining to that purpose.

But nothing can be done without orders from England, which may take some nine months to arrive. In the meantime, the officers must maintain an uneasy peace – enduring Bligh, while keeping up cautious relations with MacArthur and his rebels. As for Temeraire and Laurence, they prefer to keep out of things entirely – or at least, Laurence does, for Temeraire finds it hard to see behind the politics of liking the person who gives you the most cows to eat. But Laurence knows that to be tarred as a traitor makes your support undesirable and unwise. Yet what are they to do, a military man and a military dragon, in a colony so unformed and undeveloped?

Then a plan is developed. They are asked to take a gang of convicts out into the interior, to search for a pass over the Blue Mountain and to investigate any cultivatable land beyond. This adventure also promises to answer some questions posed by their friend Tenzing Tharkay, an agent for the East India Company who is seeking the routes used by certain smugglers to bypass the tariffs of Canton. And so off they go, with the irascible (and wonderful) Iskierka and her captain Granby, plus the issue of the first hatched egg: the smugly tedious Caesar and his equally unpleasant captain Rankin. Their journey takes them deep into a haunting world of red sand and yellow rock, of winding gorgeous and vast deserts, a strange and disorientating world. And there are dangers here too: the vicious, swiftly-striking bunyips who lurk at water-holes; and, perhaps even more unsettling, the silent presence of the natives. When the company wakes one morning to find that the largest remaining dragon egg has been stolen, their mission takes on a much more urgent prospect – to recover the egg before it hatches in enemy hands.

Novik’s adventures are always that – adventurous – but their real appeal for me comes from their writing. She has managed, throughout a lengthy series, to keep the historical ‘voice’ of the narrative absolutely pitch-perfect, and reading her stories is like sinking into a warm bath with a happy sigh. They’re such comfortable books. Her profound knowledge of real history enables her to tweak things at just the right moment, to create a world subtly changed by the everyday presence of dragons, and she chooses such interesting and (to me) unfamiliar moments to explore. You just know that nothing is going to jar. And the books are also wonderful character pieces. Although Temeraire and Laurence always have some form of mission, the real interest comes from seeing how they respond to one another and the world around them: how Temeraire’s dragon-nature is formed by the calm, noble personality of his captain. And, in this book (and in the previous volume), there’s a lot of discussion about concepts like loyalty, treason, and integrity, which help to bring the ethical world of the early 19th century to life. Fortunately there’s also plenty of humour, the most outrageous part of which is offered by Iskierka, whom I love.

Reading these books at long intervals has meant that I haven’t got bored of them: their gentle, old-fashioned spirit combined with their modern humour continue to form a magical palate-cleanser between whichever other books I’m reading at the given time. I don’t think I have that many left, unfortunately, but I’m eager to see which exotic part of the world draws Laurence and Temeraire next… and I may have an idea which it’ll be…

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Last in this series: Victory of Eagles

2 thoughts on “Tongues of Serpents (2010): Naomi Novik

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    I am almost done with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series (just one volume left to read), and still planning to tackle Novik’s novels after that. This volume in particular, from your description sounds very Aubrey/Maturin-ish – the writing and the way it is steeped in 18th century language is one of the main appeals of O’Brian’s series, too, and William Bligh plays a (somehwat indirect) part there, too. So while I am still not quite convinced that I will be liking the Temeraire series, I am finding myself looking rather forward to the prospect of giving it a go.

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