Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Black Powder War

Black Powder War
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

Capt. Will Laurence and his dragon companion Temeraire have had an eventful year. Pairing up moments after the latter hatched, they've undergone a whirlwind training into King George III's Aerial Corps (Laurence having been a Navy captain, before), helped repulse a naval and aerial attack on Dover by Napoleon's forces, sailed around the horn of Africa, survived multiple assassination attempts, and experienced the Imperial Chinese culture where dragons and humans co-exist as equals. Temeraire, one of only eight Celestial dragons in the world, has met his mother, had his first love affair, and acquired a lifelong enemy in the albino dragon Lien. Laurence, for his part, has had his worldview shaken, has become an adopted son of the Chinese emperor, has prevented the French from forming an alliance with China, and now – without even a pat on the shoulder for a job well done – receives brusque orders to Istanbul, where he is to take charge of three dragon eggs the British are purchasing from the Sultan.

Part 1 of this book concerns the perilous journey of a man, a dragon and their crew across the vast width of Asia, including some serious desert trekking where the margin between life and death is very slim. They acquire a Chinese chef, a guide – an enigmatic, contradictory man named Tharkay, who has grown just a bit cynical after being snubbed by society due to the irregular circumstances of his birth – and even, for a spell, a pack of feral dragons from a mountain range in Central Asia, who mostly come along on the promise of beef. The situation changes suddenly when they arrive in Istanbul and find that the British ambassador has been killed, his secretary has disappeared with a million pounds, and the Sultan doesn't want to let them go – with or without the promised eggs.

Of course, Lien shows up again, vowing revenge against Laurence and Temeraire over the death of the Chinese prince who was her whole world. Thanks to Lien's strategems, the Temeraires (if you'll pardon me for calling the crew that) are already caught in a trap, and it continues to close around them more tightly. As time runs out for their escape, they must run the dangerous gauntlet of a sultan's harem where any man who enters, other than the eunuch guards, must surely die. But collecting the eggs and escaping are only one moment of danger in an adventure that proceeds, in Part 3, to reimagine Napoleon's 1806-07 Prussian campaign with dragons. More or less conscripted into the aerial defenses of the doomed Prussian side, the Temeraires witness and, indeed, take part in the crushing defeats at Saalfeld, Jena and Auerstedt, before finding themselves boxed in by the seige of Danzig.

By and large, the course of history isn't much changed by the participation of dragons. But we view those historic battlefields with a certain thrilling sweep that they might lack (as if!) by not having dragons flying overhead. But besides adding aerial views and thrilling, dragon-on-dragon action, the draconic revision also casts the personality of Laurence up against such real-life characters as Napoleon, Queen Louise, King Friedrich Wilhelm III, Generals Bl├╝cher, L'Estocq, Hohenlohe and Kalkreuth, and Marshal Lefebvre.

Throw in the ticking time-bomb of two unhatched dragon eggs, a vendetta between two dragons, swift-moving battles, surprise reunions and aerial warfare tactics that put everything Laurence has yet learned in the shade, and you have something much more thrilling than just a bit of military history dramatized for novel-reading audiences. It's a simmering, spicy stew of suspense, a grim depiction of what war is like, a thought-provoking tangle of personalities and ideologies (such as Temeraire's dream of improving conditions for British dragons), a rich picture of the manners and lifestyles of that time, and a series of thrilling battles and narrow escapes, all knit together in flawless style and pacing. I was totally entertained.

A beautiful piece of writing all around, this is the third of nine Temeraire novels, coming between Throne of Jade and Empire of Ivory.

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