I avidly read the first five volumes of Naomi Novik's wonderful alternate Earth/historical fantasy series featuring the unforgettable Imperial dragon Temeraire, but for some reason (possibly a combination of illness and the "too many books, too little tine" syndrome, I did not continue reading the rest of Novik's Temeraire books as they were published - an oversight I now wish to remedy. So since the events were a bit clouded in my memory, I decided to reread the last volume I had completed - Victory of Eagles, which I read when it was published in 2008 - before continuing.
The storyline of Victory of Eagles - of the defense of England against the invading French and their eventual expulsion from that scepter'd isle - was a good read, of course, but what continues to interest me most about the series is the growth of both Laurence and Temeraire as characters. Maturing both emotionally and ethically, Laurence is more and more becoming his own moral compass, and questioning the assumptions of his culture, while Temeraire learns empathy and understanding of the complexities of living with humans and dragons in a complex society. With my memory refreshed, and my curiosity about the next developments revived, I dove into the next three books of the series.
Sadly, I gather from reading Novik's website that there is only one book remaining in the Temeraire series, to be published sometime next year. It's going to be interesting to see how she ends the Napoleonic Wars... And also to see just where Laurence and Temeraire end up after all their journeys.
Tongues of Serpents
The ethical education of Laurence continues apace - and we as readers are seeing more and more of the ugliest side of colonialism and imperialism as Temeraire and Laurence, exiled to New South Wales as punishment for foiling the British plan to infect all continental European dragons with plague, undertake an exploration of the Australian interior, where they discover diverse difficulties from bunyips, wildfires and thunderstorms to smugglers who steal one of the dragon eggs intended to be the foundation of a colonial dragon-borne military corps. Following the trail of the stolen egg, they cross the continent and arrive on the north coast, where they find a thriving seaport where Chinese merchants, working harmoniously with the indigenous people of the region, are conducting trade via ship and accommodating sea serpents with just about anyone with a presence in the Indian Ocean or China Sea - to the considerable annoyance of the British, who want to control trade in every corner of the earth. There's also mention of an arrangement between Napoleon and the dragon-led empires of Africa to invade the New World and end the slave trade, repatriating all Africans kidnapped and taken overseas.
Crucible of Gold
With this novel, Novik continues to expand the geopolitical borders of her variation on the high period of European imperialism, and prepares us for further examinations of the ways that two sentient peoples can live together. The international relationships of Temeraire's world are getting increasingly interesting, and Laurence and Temeraire are becoming increasingly important to what shape the global alliances will take. Equally important is the moral development of the main characters, as Temeraire's sense of justice becomes more clearly defined and Laurence becomes more and more the owner of his own conscience.
The action in this novel is driven by the declaration of war by the Tswana - supported by Napoleon - against the Portuguese in South America in a bid to liberate Africans stolen from their homelands and sold into slavery. Laurence is offered full reinstatement of rank if he agrees to travel from Australia to Rio to negotiate in the conflict.
A mutiny on the ship carrying them to Rio leaves Laurence, Temeraire and their companions cast off on an island near the west coast of South America; making their way to the continent, they encounter an isolationist Incan Empire which was able to resist early Spanish adventurers and maintain its sovereignty. Here we encounter yet another form of relationship between human and dragon - among the Inca, dragons are the property owners and humans live for the most part as serfs in the fiefdoms of their dragon masters. The situations in both the Inca lands and the portuguese colonies on the eastern part of the continent bring the on-going themes of freedom and equality which have been woven into the story of Temeraire from the beginning into greater prominence.
Blood of Tyrants
Their mission to South America completed, Temeraire and Laurence are on their way to China when Laurence is swept overboard during a storm off the coast of Japan. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Temeraire refuses to believe that Laurence is dead, and demands that the British dragon transport they were travelling on make port in make enquiries in Nagasaki - the only city in Japan currently open to foreigners - to start inquiries into Laurence's fate. While in the harbour, he meets an American dragon - a merchant trader in his own right - who gives us - and the British dragons - a glimpse of another society where dragons are integrated into society and enjoy the rewards of engaging in free enterprise. As it turns out, Laurence is alive, but is on the run through enemy territory, as it is forbidden for any foreigner to set foot in any part of Japan outside of the controlled trade port, and his life has been judged forfeit by the local dragon aristocracy. Worse, he has lost his memory and has no idea how he came to Japan. Worst of all, he no longer remembers Temeraire or any of what he has learned since becoming Temeraire's captain.
In an interview found on the Suduvu website, Novik says:
As the book opens with it, I won’t be spoiling too much to say that at the opening of the book, Laurence has been separated from Temeraire, shipwrecked in a hostile country, and to make matters worse has suffered amnesia. I am always looking for ways to make my characters struggle, as I think that’s what makes them fun to read about. But also, this is the second to last volume in the series, and I really wanted to have a moment where I looked back at the distance Laurence has traveled. He’s come a long way from the person he was when the series began, not just in a practical but in an emotional sense, but it’s been a journey of a thousand small steps, not any single moment. I also am conscious that it’s a long series, and I wanted to give new and old readers both a place to refresh their memory and rejoin the story before we head down the final blaze of the rollercoaster to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (http://sf-fantasy.suvudu.com/2013/08/new-release-interview-blood-of-tyrants-by-naomi-novik.html)
Reunited, and with Laurence very slowly regaining his memories (to the great distress of Temeraire), their next port-of-call is China. There, they become involved in palace politics thanks to Laurence's position as an adopted son of the Imperial family, and hear that news that Napoleon is invading Russia. The Emperor offers military aid, and the small British contingent set off across Asia, escorted by several companies of the highly disciplined and organised Chinese military force.
With part of this book set in Japan and China - both countries where dragons are fully integrated into society along with humans - and the rest in Russia, where dragons are treated as slaves, with those who will not serve hobbled by cruel hooks and chains embedded in their flesh that prevent them from flying, we see in one volume the best and the worst of relations between humans and dragonkind - but we see as well the beginning of an end to that treatment.
As one character in this volume notes, Temeraire and Laurence are, as a result of their own changes, changing things the world over, catalysts for shifting alliances between nations and changing relationships between dragon and human. Given that there is only one remaining volume in this series, I hope that Novik gives us at least some glimpses into the future of her alternate Earth - or perhaps comes back to it some day to tell new stories about dragons and the humans they share their world with.