Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik

Del Rey, 2006, 398 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-48129-1

Sometimes, sarcasm is the quickest way to the truth.

So when I say that reading Throne of Jade is like being stuck on a slow boat to China, I’m not being mean as much as I’m being as descriptive as possible

Nor am I being negative given how much I enjoyed the novel despite its lopsided structure.

Because Throne of Jade does take place on a slow boat to China. After the events of His Majesty’s Dragon, Will Laurence and Temeraire are faced with a new threat: the Chinese government has learned that Temeraire, formerly a gift to the French government, has fallen in English hands. They’re not happy and the English government isn’t necessarily feeling better about it. Soon, a plan is hatched to send Laurence out of England and in China, where negotiations with the Chinese emperor can most efficiently settle the issue.

There’s a catch: during an eighteenth century where most of Europe is at war, sending a major delegation to China can only be done by boat, around Africa and the Indian Peninsula. For the duration of the trip, Laurence, Temeraire, their entire crew, the English delegation, the Chinese diplomats and everyone’s support staff are stuck on a flotilla going to China.

It’s not a smooth voyage: beyond culinary matters (as Temeraire comes to appreciate Chinese cuisine), the ship is attacked by pirates, dogged by traitors, wracked by dissension and enlivened by all sorts of other incidents.

Still, we’re on a slow boat to China.

This changes two-third of the way in the book, as China looms over the horizon and the palace intrigue begins in earnest. Almost too quickly for comfort, various conflicts are introduced or revealed, along with significant revelations about why Temeraire was sent to Europe. As a few roughly-paced actions scenes show, all is not well in the Chinese court,. Temeraire makes a permanent enemy, but manages to make things end happily for everyone else. If you’re looking for a plot, you’ll find it in the last hundred pages of the novel.

Fortunately, the chief attraction of the Temeraire series is still world-building, character and prose rather than plot. Novik is still fond of short-loop drama (though one hopes that the introduction of a recurring antagonist may change things slightly) and the structure of her second novel is lopsided, but she still writes entertaining prose, and the deepening characters of Laurence and Temeraire are doing much to keep us in the story.

Temeraire may often be too good to be true, but his growing awakening to the true treatment of English dragons (especially when compared to their Chinese brethrens) introduces a few elements that may eventually develop into satisfying plot lines. I’m still vaguely unsure if the human/dragon relationships are meant to satirize a certain view of male/female power dynamics, or if they’re meant to map onto other privileged/oppressed relationships. But then again, sometimes a dragon is just a dragon… and on that score, Throne of Jade does much to stretch the reader’s imagination: Temeraire’s arrival in China is a glimpse into yet another series of conventions regarding dragon accommodations. Compared to His Majesty’s Dragon, the feeling of “cheating” alternate history is lessened given my lack of familiarity with Chinese history at the time.

But even despite my quibbles about the plot and structure of the novel, I still had a lot of fun reading Throne of Jade, and that ends up trumping all other concerns about the book. Novik has, once again, delivered a solid series book that shows that the readability and richness of her first novel weren’t accidents. It doesn’t stand alone, nor is it meant to: her story may be shifting gears in anticipation for later instalments. Black Power War is up next, with its deliciously ominous title.

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