Book Review

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik


Title: Throne of Jade
Author: Naomi Novik
Publication Info: Del Rey 2006
ISBN: 0345481291
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

If I had to write a compulsively honest personal ad for Throne of Jade, it’d go something like this:

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.

Comments are Closed

  1. nina armstrong says:

    I think some of your complaints about those discussions are due to the fact that this was sold as YA, which has got length restrictions,despite HP.
        I wish she had gone a little more in depth,especially given what happens in book 3,but overall I think she did a good job. And yes, F/FS are the best places for those conversations.

  2. michelle says:

    I enjoyed this book also.

    For those wanting to get a dragon fix, I highly recommend Mercedes Lackey’s Joust.  It takes place in an Ancient Egyptian like setting and deals with dragons.

  3. belmanoir says:

    Granby is love!

  4. Angela James says:

    Is she planning on writing more? I’ve been saving the third book because I hate it that all good things must come to an end so I’m holding off my pleasure as long as possible. And gee, don’t I sound like some guy in a romance novel trying to hold back his orgasm? Now I feel a little dirty.

  5. Candy says:

    I think some of your complaints about those discussions are due to the fact that this was sold as YA, which has got length restrictions,despite HP.

    See, that puzzles me and pisses me off a little, to be honest. The series doesn’t strike me as especially YA-ish at all, and arbitrary length restrictions make me want to punch a bitch. I remember reading monstrous long books as a kid and yearning for more.

    Is she planning on writing more?

    Oh HELL YES. The fourth book is coming out in a couple of months. I’m not sure how I’m going to stand the wait. *bites fingernails*

  6. Jane says:

    B+?  Are you whacked?  What’s with the hateration?

  7. Candy says:

    B+?  Are you whacked?  What’s with the hateration?


    And to think you didn’t make a peep when I gave Not Quite a Lady a B-.

  8. Angela James:

    Is she planning on writing more?

    Yes, book four, Empire of Ivory, is due out in September!

    Me, I pretty much agree with the review here; Throne of Jade isn’t quite as unbelievably fantastic as His Majesty’s Dragon, but it’s still pretty effing good. 😀

  9. Jeez, Candy, I can’t believe you totally ignored Temeraire’s love life in this novel!  After all, this is a romance forum!  That dragon’s getting more than Laurence.

  10. God, I love this series. Horatio Hornblower plus DRAGONS??? It rocked my world.

  11. Lyra says:

    I think some of your complaints about those discussions are due to the fact that this was sold as YA, which has got length restrictions,despite HP.

    Really? I’ve been seeing these in the adult fantasy section, which is across the bookstore from YA (at least around here). And my main complaint has been that these books have not been marked as YA when I think they really are.

    The style they’re written in, and especially the simplicity of the text makes me think they were written for a younger audience. I recommend it more to older children than anyone, except really good friends who I know will like it for the “Napoleonic Wars! With Dragons!” factor.

    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.

    To be perfectly honest, by the third book, the conversation felt more like talking to Hermione Granger about house-elves than anything.

    But Temeraire is a real charmer. Much love to the dragon.

  12. Lyra says:

    Forgot to add that while I found Throne of Jade a LOT of fun (especially Laurence’s view of Chinese culture), it still bugs me a little that Temeraire’s ability is called the Divine Wind, which, like it or not, has too strong of a Japanese connotation for me to buy comfortably when used in a Chinese context.

    But I could just be compulsive. *shrug*

  13. Octavia says:

    I really enjoyed the first book in this series, even though I thought it was formulaic; I knew pretty much every step of the way what the author would be writing about, but I was eager to see how she would treat each particular plot point. This book went in a very different and less predictable direction, which I liked, but for some reason it just wasn’t as compelling a read as the first book. I’m now mired halfway through the third book, and I’m not sure when I’ll manage to finish it. I hope I’m just experiencing series fatigue, since I really do love Temeraire and his relationship with Lawrence.

    I was surprised to hear that these are YA books, since my Borders sells them in the regular Science Fiction/Fantasy section, and my copy of the book has a plain Fantasy subject designation near the bar code. I agree that Novik has a straightforward style of writing that would work well for YA readers, and Temeraire would definitely appeal to a younger reader, but there’s certainly enough sophistication in the books to make them straight Fantasy for me.

  14. Marg says:

    Naomi Novik mentioned on her blog this week that the fifth book is going to be called Victory of Eagles. I am looking forward to the next books.

  15. Becky says:

    If you love Granby, you really need to read Black Powder War.

  16. Phyl says:

    Is it true that Peter Jackson bought the film rights to the 1st 3 books? If so, any word as to whether he’ll actually move forward and make movies out of them? I remember when I read them that I thought they’d make terrific films in the right hands.

    There’s little not to like about any of these books. And I found them extremely romantic in the way the relationship unfolds between Laurence and Temeraire. You see each of the grow and change as a result of their relationship with one another.

  17. Estelle Chauvelin says:

    Seriously, YA?  I’ve been seeing them in the general fantasy sections, too, not to mention that they sound so freakin’ much like Patrick O’Brian that I have a hard time imagining they’re intended for a younger audience than his.

    I read the first section of Throne of Jade yesterday, so I haven’t actually gotten to the part in China yet.

  18. The second book feels to me like Novik was stalling, a little afraid to dive into the political intrigue waiting for them in China, then knocked it off way too quickly at the end of the book.  A writer I know who’s friends with Novik diagnosed authorial cowardice, and I could see that.  Either the journey there needed to be a whole book and China a whole book, or they needed to get to China sooner and spend more time there.

    Still good stuff in ToJ, but it’s definitely the weakest of the three published so far.  The teaser from Empire of Ivory at the end of Black Powder War?  Has had me chewing on the furniture since I read it, waiting for the next book.

  19. Nina: I’ve never seen Novik’s works marketed anywhere as YA, either; certainly none of the stores I’ve seen carrying the novels file ‘em under YA, and there’s been no whiff of it on Novik’s LJ…?

    Phyl: Yes, it is indeed true that Jackson has optioned the series; Novik posted about it on her LJ a few months back. 😀 No word yet about when a movie might actually happen, but as of the last interview I read with Jackson, he has a few projects on his queue he’d likely take care of before tackling Temeraire.

  20. Marianne McA says:

    I thought the third book was the weakest – not so much of a story arc, more ‘The continued adventures of….’

    Seem to remember that the end was fairly arbitrary.

  21. I think the ending of Black Powder War isn’t so much arbitrary as unfinished; it leads straight on into Empire of Ivory, which is unfortunate given the delay between books.

  22. Becky says:

    Doesn’t it end with the dragons singing their “marching song”?  I remember thinking it was a very satisfying ending, although it was obvious that there was more to come.  I too made the mistake of reading the excerpt for book 4.  Nooooo!

  23. utsusemi says:

    Delurking here (hi!) to say that I actually liked Throne of Jade better than Black Powder War.  Both felt equally series-middle-ish, I guess.  But I didn’t notice as much with Throne because I was so busy being excited about the fact that it didn’t make me want to spork my eyes out, *even though* I was reading it in the middle of writing my undergrad thesis, which was (largely), actually about Chinese law and high society in that time period.  Novik managed to provide me with a light read set in pretty much exactly the historical place and time I know the most about without really doing anything blatantly bothersome. I mean, a girl can nitpick (and I too would’ve liked to see many of the “what-ifs” treated more thoroughly, esp. from my junior-historian perspective), but so much fantasy-by-westerners seems to completely mistreat China, at least to my admittedly hypersensitized mind, that it was awesome *not* to have a series I was enjoying spoiled once the characters docked in Canton.  I think sticking so firmly to Laurence’s perspective really helped with that, actually, for a variety of reasons. 

    Also, fun fact: Prince Miankai?  The proffered cute-kid replacement for Laurence?  He’s in my thesis, getting punished with a downgrade in rank for bringing actors into the forbidden areas of the palace.  So either he grew up into kind of a playboy, or Mianning (who succeeded to the throne) had it in for him for some reason.

  24. blamedorothy says:

    I picked up the first one (in the fantasy section) while wandering through the Borders waiting for Harry Potter, read the other two books I bought first, then sucked His Majesty’s Dragon down in about twenty-four hours. It may have gone a little faster than usual since I had a lot of time waiting in lines at Comicon, but I immediately made a mad dash into the crowded convention floor in search of the next two. To top it off, my brother – hereafter referred to as The Bestest Brother in the Known World – talked the guy at the publisher’s table into giving him an ARC of Empire of Ivory.

    The fourth book is really really good. I had a little “okay okay move it along” in Throne of Jade and Black Powder War, but none in Empire of Ivory. It was very satisfying.

    And can I just say that I really appreciate that they are being released in paperback. I know it’s “cool” to put out hardcovers, but I have a small apartment and those Potter books take up a lot of room.

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