Black Powder War, Naomi Novik

Del Rey, 2006, 365 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-48130-5

After the long trip to China in Throne of Jade, it’s good to see Naomi Novik come back to a more conventional military novel in Black Powder War, the third volley in the Temeraire series. Given that the high concept of the series has been “the Napoleonic War with dragons”, it’s only fair that at least one novel would take place in the trenches of the war itself. If the first volume was a book of discovery rudely interrupted by combat and the second was a voyage to China capped by a bit of palace intrigue, this third volume sends Temeraire and captain Laurence on the Eastern European battlefields.

It starts as Temeraire and company are enjoying life in China after the events of the latest volume. Suddenly, a courier appears and orders them back home by way of the Ottoman Empire: Three dragon eggs there await transport back to the home islands as quickly as possible. If the voyage to China took place over sea, the trip back will have to go overland, straight toward the eastern front lines of the war.

Naturally, the trip proves to be far more complicated than simply “bring three eggs back home”. Events in Turkey don’t go as planned, stranding Laurence and crew in Eastern Europe even as Napoleon’s armies are doing well on the battlefield. If the Temeraire series has been amiable so far, circumstances soon spiral into desperation as the British crew is forces to care for the eggs in its custody, forage for food and help their allies as much as they can. Unexpected allies and even more unexpected enemies don’t make things any easier.

At this point in the series, there’s no doubt about the appeal of Novik’s prose: It’s accessible, it’s gentle, it’s fun to read and makes a good attempt at replicating the flavour of Regency-era narrative without losing the directness of more contemporary writing. Black Power War is no exception, despite the inevitable loss of the novelty effect. In terms of plotting, Novik is starting to allow herself longer dramatic loops than in the first two volumes, and the return appearance of Lien makes for a nice bit of continued tension. The narrative is not always interesting or gripping, but that may be a consequence of the events of the book themselves: No one will be fond of seeing Temeraire and Laurence stuck in the mud in Eastern Europe, so it’s only natural to wish that thing could move a bit more quickly during that time.

On the other hand, it allows Novik to showcase even more historical details about her chosen time period, and the way she integrates her fantasy elements in that framework. Napoleon himself has a walk-on role in the middle of the narrative, and there are a few intricate descriptions of dragon-boosted military operations.

Thematically, the series is also developing on a number of social issues. Temeraire is an independent thinker, and the impact of seeing how the Chinese treat their dragons is starting to be felt even as he returns home. I wouldn’t be surprised if dragon emancipation ends up forming a significant portion of the upcoming arc of the series, with consequent social commentary.

From an external perspective, it’s worth noting that this third volume of the Temeraire series is the last in Del Rey’s initial push for the series. The fourth one has been delivered and is currently making its way through the editorial process, but Black Powder War was the last volume written more or less in isolation, before the series earned widespread acclaim, got optioned by Peter Jackson and earned Novik a spot on the Hugo/Campbell ballot. It will be interesting to see how the feedback loop starts affecting the series from now on.

One thing is certain: this isn’t a closed trilogy. It’s obvious from the end of the third volume (let alone the special sneak preview of the fourth book bundled at the end) that the Napoleonic wars continue, and that Temeraire has a number of adventures ahead of him. While the series remains a bit light and has not managed to resolve the internal contradiction of being a “Napoleonic war… with dragons!” alternate history, it remains a piece of solid entertainment, and shows little signs of fatigue as it heads toward a fourth instalment.

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