Slightly awkward transitional book full of high seas adventure, political intrigue, derring-do, exotic locales and nascent musings on the nature of liberty, natural rights and sentience seeks geeky reader who squeals with glee at the thought of an alternate history of the Napoleonic war with dragons. I might not be as taut and compelling as my predecessor, but I promise to be compulsively readable just the same. Give me a chance to spend all night with you between the sheets. You won’t be sorry.
If you haven’t read His Majesty’s Dragon yet, I definitely do not recommend beginning the series with this book. It’s not so much a matter of lost backstory, as Novik does a decent job of catching you up on events, but that first book sets up a lot of essential detail in terms of how the Aerial Corps works, and the dragon-aviator bond. And for that matter, don’t read this review if you haven’t read the first book, for yea, it is indeed spoiler-riffic, since there’s a Sort of Big Surprise at the end of the first that dictates the plot direction of the second.
So at the end of Book One, we find out Our Very Own Temeraire is actually a Celestial dragon, the most rare Chinese breed of all. The British are quite pleased, because Celestials have the power of Divine Wind—and no, it’s not the same thing as Savage Thunder, though both involve the forceful expelling of copious amounts of air. The Chinese, however, are rather less than thrilled when they find out that not only has one of their precious Celestials fallen into a commoner’s hands (according to tradition, only members of the imperial family are suitable companions for them), but he has been pressed into military service, too. A delegation, headed by the hostile Prince Yongxing, is sent to England to retrieve Temeraire and return him to his rightful station.
Except Temeraire has his own thoughts about that, and he refuses to leave without Laurence and his crew. And so Our Merry Band of Adventurers depart the shores of England for the Orient on a massive dragon transport ship. There, Laurence and Temeraire begin to learn about the great differences between the treatment of dragons in the West vs. the treatment of dragons in China, as Yongxing is not especially shy about attempting to woo Temeraire away from Laurence’s side. Adventures abound, as the ship encounters a hostile ship, storms, attempts on Laurence’s life (…or ARE THEY? Perhaps Laurence was just being being paranoid! *dun dun duuuuun*) and even a wild creature of the deep (which was an especially exciting episode that led to some interesting, if rather perfunctory, explorations on the nature of consciousness and sentience).
And all that’s before they get to China, where the real politicking and maneuvering begins, and where Temeraire and crew have an opportunity to witness the rather more progressive state of dragon rights in China. Between that and first-hand observations of the treatment of human slaves, Temeraire becomes quite the advocate for dragon rights, with Laurence agreeing with his assessments but feeling a great deal more cautious and less optimistic about the enterprise. Will Laurence discover who’s trying to kill him? Will Temeraire wish to return to England after experiencing for himself the disparity in the treatment of dragons? Will the Chinese court relent in their attempts to separate Laurence and Temeraire? How many of Temeraire’s crew will remain at the end of the book? Tune in to My Brother the Big-Ass Dragon.
This particular installment suffers from certain classic second-book issues: we get to know the characters better, but the action slows down, and a lot of the book feels like set-up for future books and not just a story in its own right. Don’t get me wrong; it’s cracking good fun, but it wasn’t quite as satisfying as the first book, and I was actually able to put it down for hours at a time, instead of risking life and limb by pulling it out and reading it in the car when traffic came to a standstill on I-5.
Its attempts to engage in a conversation about natural rights also felt somewhat half-baked; the implications of the status of dragons in China are interesting, but not adequately explored.
“But Candy,” you cry, “Give it a break! It’s a freaking fantasy novel!”
Well, yeah. Which makes it an excellent venue for this sort of conversation. Speculative fiction, with its rampant “what-if”-ism, has spawned some of the best fictional treatments of thorny political and philosophical issues, from 1984 to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Oryx and Crake. I’m sure the conversation will continue and improve in future books; it’s just that its treatment in this particular installment felt slight, when it wasn’t being a touch ham-handed.
However, enough with the niggling and the nagging, because there’s quite a bit to love about this book. Novik continues to do a stellar job with her characters. Laurence continues to unbend, and Temeraire continues to charm—so much so that I wish Novik would give us some passages from his point of view, though limiting the POV strictly to Laurence provides a certain power to the narrative as well. Secondary characters like Granby (on whom I have a small crush, I have to confess) are also being developed quite nicely.
Her attention to detail and narrative voice are also excellent. Her portrayal of 19th-century China is especially detailed, fascinating and even-handed, even as she convincingly filters the experience through the lens of Laurence’s point-of-view, with all its attendant preconceptions and cultural biases. That takes some doing.
All in all, if you loved His Majesty’s Dragon, this sequel is worth reading, even if not quite as crackastic as its predecessor, and there’s quite the doozy of a set-up for the third book, Black Powder War. As far as I’m concerned right now, Novik can’t write these fast enough for me.