Happy New Year, everyone! After a couple of slightly lax months, it’s back to the book reviews.
My first read of 2019 was the fifth of Naomi Novik’s wonderful Temeraire series. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, they feature an alternate history in which sentient dragons are teamed up with human captains to form the Aerial Corps, a branch of the armed services which exists alongside the army and navy.
At the end of the fourth book, Temeraire and his Captain, William Laurence, committed deliberate treason: when they realised that the British government meant to withhold the cure they had found for a deadly dragon plague which would wipe out every dragon in Europe, they absconded with some of the cure and delivered it to Napoleon to avoid a genocide.
This book therefore opens on a darker note than all of the others so far – having done the honourable thing (at least as far as Laurence is concerned) and returned to Britain to give themselves up, Laurence is sentenced to death while Temeraire is dismissed from the service of the Corps and sent to the breeding grounds in Wales, promised that they will postpone hanging his captain as long as he is obedient.
Having the two main characters apart for the first quarter of the book was refreshing in some ways, as it gave the Laurence and Temeraire the chance to develop independently of one another for a little while in a way that they haven’t done since book one. Previously, the story has been told entirely from Laurence’s point of view, so it was good to see through Temeraire’s eyes too. It helped the reader understand his idealism and naivety in regards to the consequences of his treason, and his absolute unconditional love for Laurence really shines through in a way that’s incredibly moving.
There are some good cameos from real historical characters in the novel, as well as
some old favourites from the Aerial Corps. Having previously featured Napoleon and Nelson in the novels, we now encounter Arthur Wellesley, who is not yet the Duke of Wellington. As she previously did with these other two titans of the age, Novik manages a really well balanced and fair portrayal of Wellesley: he is cold and supercilious, unlike the personable Nelson and charismatic Napoleon, but he is also fair, honest and an extremely gifted tactician. I particularly liked his dynamic with Admiral Jane Roland and how his grudging admiration for her talents outdid his disdain for women in the service.
Iskierka continued to be an entertaining thorn in Temeraire’s side, though it does make the reader feel for poor Granby who continues to be one of my favourite characters. There were also several new dragons introduced, the most likable of whom was the mathematically gifted Perscitia.
The last act of the book featured an almighty showdown against Napoleon, who in this world managed to invade Britain, and sees the emotionally-strained Laurence really put to the test. The conclusion puts the reader in a quandary; simultaneously feeling that Laurence and Temeraire deserved better but equally appreciating that an incredibly-protective dragon set on rewriting society might be a bit difficult for the government to handle.
It was a very quick read and though I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as books one and four, it was still a pleasant few hours’ escapism into a place where historical and fantasy fiction unite so well. I’m looking forward to seeing what awaits Laurence and Temeraire when they land in Australia for book six.
I couldn’t find who the artist for the amazing cover image was, but credit for the image is theirs.