Empire of Ivory is book four of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and was my weekend choice of reading for a train journey to Edinburgh and back.
This book opens directly after the events of Black Powder War, seeing Laurence and Temeraire evacuating Prussian soldiers from the disastrous battle of Jena back to their native Britain. Having been absent a year during their journey to China, they are much looking forward to reuniting with all their friends. However, their homecoming is not what they hoped – they arrive to discover a deadly virus is plaguing all the dragons in the British Aerial Corps and there is no known cure. Don’t worry, the review is spoiler free!
When it appears Temeraire is immune to the illness , Laurence and his crew are sent to Africa – retracing the steps of their sea journey to China – to try and find whatever the missing key can be which has granted Temeraire immunity. Accompanied by some of their fatally ill friends, they know they have not long to succeed.
Like all the other books in the series, it was a wonderful easy read, but managed to be emotive and dark in places too without spoiling the pacing.
The book confronts the dark sides of Empire unashamedly; it showcases the abject brutality of the slave trade and the dreadful attitudes of those supporting the trade at the time. Nelson’s (who survives Trafalgar in this world) support for the practice is bluntly addressed and tarnishes his hero’s shine for both Laurence and the reader. Tom Riley too, is so pro-slavery that it’s impossible to have any lingering positive feelings for the character. On the flip side, Laurence’s cold-hearted father is made a little bit more likeable by his being an abolitionist and a friend of Wilberforce, who makes a well-written cameo.
It’s also pretty blunt about the impact of having women in the Aerial Corps, with both Jane Roland and Catherine Harcourt facing serious challenges – largely presented by male colleagues – throughout the story.
The continued highlight of these books is the wonderful, deeply affectionate bond between Laurence and Temeraire. In fact, the bond between all the captains and their dragons is so lovely and sweet and yet never trite. In Empire of Ivory we get to see a little more of the unruly Iskierka and Captain Granby (who’s become one of my favourite characters), as well as Captain Harcourt and Lily and Captain Chenery and Dulcia. I like Chenery’s chirpy humour and hope to see more of him in the next book.
I also particularly enjoyed the Napoleon cameo (obvs), which was handled in a very balanced way. He was written as a three dimensional character, rather than the bogeyman most Britons considered him at the time, and the book highlights that in some ways he was a more enlightened ruler than the powers that be in Britain at the time.
The book takes a seriously dark turn in the end though, ending on a cliff hanger after Laurence and Temeraire face the hardest decision of their journey together so far. I can’t wait to get onto the next book!
My rating: 4/5