Naomi Novik

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.

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.

His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik

Del Rey, 2006, 356 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-48128-3

There is something in the DNA code of science-fiction and fantasy readers that makes Napoleon-era nautical adventures irresistible. C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornbower, Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey… those series seem to reach the same pleasure centres stimulated by good SF&F. You can find SF&F readers who haven’t read either author, but you’ll have a harder time finding SF&F fans who didn’t like those books.

So seeing Naomi Novik pick the Napoleonic era as a setting for a dragon-enhanced alternate history series isn’t too much of a stretch. The era is appealing, and her likely readership is reasonably familiar with the historical period, whether through Forrester and O’Brien, or through Austen, Trollope and other contemporary writers. Having the series follow in the wind of the Hugo award-winning Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell doesn’t hurt either.

So, yeah: The Napoleonic war with dragons. Simple enough, right?

But Naomi Novik is one of the first of a new kind of writer: those who have honed their skills in the on-line trenches of fan-fiction. As such, her writing is eager to please and structured around a series of sharp hooks and short dramatic loops. His Majesty’s Dragon starts right off with action and mystery: After a naval battle between a French frigate and an English warship captained by Will Laurence, the victorious English soldiers discover a dragon egg in the hold of the French ship. A dragon egg ready to hatch.

Before anyone can ask what a valuable dragon egg is going in the hold of a frigate travelling without escorts, the entire English crew is scrambling to bring the ship back home and make sure that the dragon is properly hatched. Given how a dragon imprints on the first human it sees, it’s crucial that the right man for the life-long commitment be there when it happens. Alas, that man turns out to be Laurence: within moment, his entire comfortable naval career is jettisoned: Forever attached to the dragon, his arrival in England sees him shunted to His Majesty’s Air Force. Far too old by novice pilot standards, Laurence quickly finds out that his dragon isn’t normal either. Temeraire, as the dragon is called, can speak like most dragons, but is of a very rare breed with above-average capabilities. Most of His Majesty’s Dragon is a novel of discoveries, as Laurence discovers how to behave like a pilot, and as everyone discovers what Temeraire truly is.

Cleverly written and engagingly plotted, Naomi Novak’s first novel is pure reading joy. It reactivates the dormant “swashbuckler” gene in SF&F readers’ DNA and delivers solid adventure, absorbing prose, good scenes and the first glimmer of a long-running series. Even those who think they don’t like dragons will have trouble stopping reading after a few chapters.

Novik has done her research and understands the lineage of dragon-themed stories: There are a few playful pokes at Anne McCafferey’s Dragonrider series, along with a good eye for practical concerns. Novik’s combat dragons are huge and require an entire support crew to man effectively, and that’s not even mentioning the sheer quantity of meat required to fuel those dragons.

This attention to detail, on the other hand, highlights the biggest conceptual trap in Novak’s conceit: The contradiction between a well-established historical era and an alternate world where dragons are an integral part of history. Surely their power would have been recognized and exploited earlier? Surely the entire geopolitical map would have been altered early on by air power and fast reliable communications?

On the other hand, alternate history is a game about how early the departure point should be. Too late, and pickier readers start to kvetch. Too early, and the series’ entire high concept goes away.

More serious is the short-dramatic-loop structure of the novel. While it’s rich in instant gratification and early story hooks, it eventually leads to a lack of continuing tension. Laurence ostracized by his fellow pilots? Resolved within pages. Laurence and Temeraire having a spat? Resolved within pages. A potential traitor within the ranks? Resolved within pages…

But even with those short loops, the novel does a fine, fine job at setting up the world and its characters. By the end of the book, a number of mysteries are kept in reserve, and everyone’s looking forward to the next adventures of Temeraire. By-the-numbers, perhaps, but nonetheless effective. It’s a good thing I bought the entire series so far…