Sunday, November 15, 2020

Victory of Eagles

Victory of Eagles
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

When last we saw Capt. Will Laurence, of His Majesty's Aerial Corps, and his dragon companion Temeraire, they had just committed an unpardonable act of treason – bringing the cure for a deadly dragon plague to Napoleon, after the Admiralty purposely allowed an infected enemy dragon to return home. Of course, both of them believe they did what was right, but their reward for it is that Laurence is dismissed the service, stripped of his honor and sentenced to hang. The last part of his punishment has been delayed, however, until Temeraire's spirit may be sufficiently broken that he'll accept Laurence's death. Meanwhile, the strong-willed dragon tries to make his new nest, in a breeding ground for unharnessed ferals and retired veterans, as comfortable as possible – only to be challenged, almost immediately, by the biggest dragon around.

If you're worried that Temeraire loses his mojo, or Laurence his life, take comfort from the fact that this is (currently) the midpoint of a nine-book series. It has a lot in common with the age of Napoleon, Nelson and Wellington – all three of whom, in fact, figure in this book – but history has taken a tight left turn, thanks to the involvement of dragons in the affairs of nations, warfare in particular. Already, history has been changed to the extent that Nelson survived the battle of Trafalgar, while Napoleon attempted to invade British soil – a strategem that Temeraire was instrumental in thwarting, way back in Book 1. Also, the slave trade has not so much been abolished as utterly destroyed by an uprising from within Africa, led by dragons. And now, instead of fighting his way up the Iberian Peninsula to destroy Napoleon's military forces, Gen. Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington, to you) has to organize a desperate defense after Napoleon tries again, more successfully this time, to invade England.

For a goodly part of this book, Laurence and Temeraire are forced to act separately. The dragon thinks his man his dead; the man fears his dragon has escaped the breeding grounds and tried to flee the country, with little chance of survival. But actually, Temeraire has come into his own as a military leader, organizing a militia of unharnessed dragons and attacking the flanks of the French army. When they are finally reunited, they must move forward in a service where Laurence stands in disgrace; take part in a claw-biting retreat from an already conquered London; regroup in Scotland and then, at a little more cost to Laurence's already wounded conscience, wreak savagery upon the French scouts who are foraging for supplies. It all builds up to a colossal battle on which hangs all hope of continuing British resistance in Napoleon's bid for mastery over all Europe.

I have seen critical blurbs by other writers, comparing this series to Dragonslayer and Eragon on the dragon side, and to Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian (Master and Commander) on the historical period side. A reference by Stephen King to Susannah Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is perhaps the most intelligent comparison I've spotted, as it covers both fantasy and the Napoleonic period. After reading this book, however, I think the hero of Napoleonic war fiction who best compares to Will Laurence is C.S. Forester's creation, Horatio Hornblower: A man tormented by his own estimate of what his honor is worth, by a conscience too exacting for even the best of men to live up to – although, in Laurence's case, other men share his low opinion of himself. Nevertheless, when his sense of honor is reawakened in this book, it is an emotionally wrenching turning point after which anything that happens is a bonus adventure, in which one follows along with breathless enjoyment.

I love these characters. I love this period. I love what Novik is doing with them. And although I don't know what the next books have in store for Laurence and Temeraire, I'm already a little sad to be past the hump and on the downhill stretch. This is the fifth of (at present) nine books in the "Temeraire" sequence, coming just after Empire of Ivory and before Tongues of Serpents. Naomi Novik's other novels include Uprooted, Spinning Silver and A Deadly Education, which is due to have a sequel, The Last Graduate, published in July 2021.

No comments: