Here there be dragons

>> Sunday, December 09, 2007

After wrapping up Halberstam's The Coldest Winter last week, I needed to pick something light and frothy from the huge pile of books I need to get to. (I buy too many damn books--which seems like an oxymoron, you can't have too many books, but I have a huge backlog right now, and I keep compulsively buying more.) And there, right near the top: Naomi Novik's fourth Temeraire book, Empire Of Ivory. Perfect choice. Finished it yesterday.

The Temeraire books can probably best be described as Master And Commander meets Pern, a description that may be unfortunate insofar as once you've alienated people who dislike 19th century naval yarns and people who hate Anne McCaffrey, you possibly have no readers left. But it's also a description that completely sums up the Temeraire universe: an alternate 19th century in which the Napoleonic Wars are being fought from the backs of dragons, a loopy Reese's Peanut Butter cup mashup that works shockingly well. Don't believe me? Ask Peter Jackson, who bought the rights to the series and plans on releasing a Temeraire movie in 2009. (I probably won't see it: I hate what Jackson did to The Lord Of The Rings, but that's another subject.)

In a nutshell, William Laurence is a captain in His Majesty's navy who captures a French ship smuggling an exotic dragon egg from China. The egg hatches before he can get it back to Britain, and the dragon, who Laurence names Temeraire, imprints on him. Since dragons form intense and instinctual bonds with a single human at hatching, Laurence is forced to leave the navy and join the Crown's aviator service as Temeraire's captain. Excitement follows, including battles with Napoleon's dragons, a tense diplomatic trip to China, and a desperate trip from China to Prussia across the Asian continent.

Novik's prior experience, before publishing the first Temeraire book, His Majesty's Dragon, was working on Bioware's first Neverwinter Nights expansion, Shadows Of Undrentide. This may not seem like much of a recommendation if you haven't played SOU, but those who have had the pleasure may remember that game for its cleverness, wry humor and occasional surprising poignancy. (It seems significant, in context, that one of SOU's quests involved a humorous and touching attempt to recover a kobold's stuffed doll from a dragon, freeing the kobold from service; examining the doll before handing it over to the kobold revealed a touching note from the dragon to his former servant.) The first two books in the Temeraire series have a similar spirit: there were quite a few times I found myself laughing with pleasure at the dialogue.

That humor is still detectable in Empire, but there's not nearly as much of it. An epidemic has struck the dragons of the British aviator core, and Temeraire--who appears to have come down with the illness and inadvertently cured it with something he ate in the second book--and his crew must travel to south Africa to try to find the cure they previously stumbled on. Things become complicated when it turns out that an African tribe has rallied a confederacy of tribes to put an end to the slave trade, and has assembled a great fleet of African dragons to drive the Europeans off the continent.

Like many authors writing historical romance, Novik has a difficult time maintaining historical mindsets, particularly where her heroes are concerned. Although there are nods to 19th century prejudices--Laurence is made uncomfortable by the role women play in the Crown's aviator core, hesitates in opposing the slave trade, and understands his colleagues' views of military discipline and conduct--the bottom line is that Laurence (and other heroic characters) tend to be anachronistically progressive most of the time. Then again, it seems churlish to complain about this sort of problem: while anachronisms may take you out of the book at times, a fantasy story about a blinkered colonial racist probably wouldn't make for rousing escapist entertainment.

And that's ultimately what these books are about: it's cool 19th century ships with dragons. And if Empire Of Ivory isn't as charming or funny as it's predecessors, it's still a page-turner that's damn hard to put down. That's a form of success that can be hard to explain: Novik's not a brilliant stylist, the books aren't necessarily original (as compared, for instance, to Susanna Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a fantasy novel set in the same era), but Novik's books are the dangerous sort that have you looking at the clock by the bed and saying, "Well, I think I can get one more chapter in... okay... one more. What time is it? Okay, I know I said 'one more,' but I can read one more before I crash...." Her characters are endearing, the action is fun, the pages almost turn themselves, and I'm unhappy that she ended the latest one on a cliffhanger again, meaning I'll be buying the inevitable book 5 in a year or so. (I'll comfort myself with the thought that at least she's writing faster than George R.R. Martin. [Shakes fist.])



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