Book Review: Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

The Temeraire series has rapidly become one of my favourite book franchises. After all; Napoleonic history with sentient dragons, what is there not to love? So far the stories have taken William Laurence and his dragon companion Temeraire from the training grounds in Scotland to China, Western Europe and the heart of Africa. Book six, Tongues of Serpents, sees them land in Australia.

*spoilers for the series so far*

The sixth book of the series opens to find our heroes in somewhat unhappy circumstances. Having been convicted of treason thanks to their decision to pass the cure for the dragon plague onto Napoleon and thus preventing a European dragon genocide, Laurence was initially sentenced to hang. Thanks to the intervention of the Duke of Wellington, the sentence was commuted to transportation and so they have been sent to Australia to help found the new dragon colony there, bringing three precious eggs from the UK.

To make matters worse, one of these eggs is destined for Captain Jeremy Rankin, the supercilious former courier officer whose gross neglect led to the death of his dragon Levitas in book one and who has not forgiven Laurence for massive ass-kicking he doled out on that occasion. The other aviators meanwhile avoid Laurence like the plague.

Thankfully Laurence and Temeraire do not completely lack for friends as they have been accompanied by (against Admiral Roland’s wishes) by headstrong young dragon Iskierka and the always-loyal Captain Granby, as well as uber-competent enigma Tenzing Tharkay.

They find a colony in turmoil – Governor William Bligh, of Bounty fame, has been overthrown by mutiny (again) and wishes the newly arrived aviators to restore him by force. The rebels are equally invested in getting the dragons on their side. Conscious that he can afford no more trouble, Laurence attempts to stay well out of things and gratefully seizes the offer of a mission to find a path through the Australian wilderness.

However, when one of the precious three eggs goes missing, the mission turns into a desperate race to recover it before it can hatch.

I had quite mixed feelings about this book, so I will cover the good points first. Things I particularly enjoyed were:

  • The ongoing bond between Laurence and Temeraire. It is so pure and wholesome and their mutual devotion really endearing. Temeraire did quite a bit of growing up in this book; coming to the realisation that actions, even when they are right, can have consequences.
  • The new dragons. There have been so many supporting dragon characters introduced over the course of the novels but Naomi Novik makes each of them feel unique and distinct. Lazy, snotty Caesar was a perfect match for Rankin while I was chuffed to see good-natured glutton Kulingile overcome the challenges of his hatching to be paired up with Demane.
  • Granby, just in general. He’s become my absolute favourite character (which probably bodes ill for him across the last three books!). His loyalty is unshakeable and he does his level best to look after Laurence and also manage the world’s most bratty dragon.

Despite all those positives though, I found the middle of the book – once they got out into the wilderness – dragged something awful. A couple of times I found myself tempted to just put it down and had to force myself to keep reading. I’m glad I did though as the story really picked up towards the end.

I’ve three books left to go in the series now and look forward to see how this alternative take on the Napoleonic wars is going to end.

My Rating: 3/5


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