Saturday, October 31, 2020

Empire of Ivory

Empire of Ivory
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the alternate world where the Temeraire series takes place, the war between Regency Britain and Napoleonic France – or rather, by 1807, between Regency Britain and the rest of the world – is fought not only on land and sea, but also with dragons crewed by men, women and children, fighting in the airspace over both. Former Royal Navy Capt. Will Laurence and his Chinese Imperial dragon companion Temeraire have seen a lot of the world and done a great deal for the war effort in only a couple years. They've halted a French invasion on British shores, using Temeraire's rare ability known as "divine wind" – a roar that can shatter bones and sink ships. They've ensured the Chinese Empire's neutrality – getting Laurence adopted as an emperor's son. They've secured the first fire-breather in the British service – stealing her in the egg from the Sultan of Istanbul. And they've escaped from Napoleon's ransack of Prussia with 20 semi-feral dragons recruited from the mountain passes of Central Asia.

But now they have to circle back to a place they've already visited – Capetown, Africa – in search of the cure for a disease that threatens to wipe out all of Britain's dragons. Thanks to whatever it was, Temeraire got over his sniffles pretty quickly, during his first trip around the world. Figuring out what it was proves easier than finding more of it, enough to dose his squadron and then the rest of the corps. At first, it seems this is because this life-saving medicine is a rare fungus that the colonists and cattle-hearding tribesmen near the coast have almost eradicated, because it makes cows sick. But the real reason these strange mushrooms are hard to get proves much more dangerous to know.

It's related to the real reason, which no one has correctly guessed, that colonists, missionaries and explorers have never gone deep into the dark continent and returned to tell about it. Everyone thinks it has to do with wild beasts and feral dragons ruling the African interior. But actually, it's due to a great civilization so powerful that it has managed to keep its existence secret from the outside world. Once again, like when they visited China, Temeraire and company bear witness to an entirely different way to order the relationship between men and dragons – only this time, the knowledge brings danger and disaster.

I wish I could go on in more detail about what happens in this book, but I'm already afraid I may have spoiled too much of it. There's a lot more to it, though – including the full range of dramatic scope, from characters telling each other off to colossal battles, over the morality of slavery. This book revises history more radically than the previous installments in the series. For example, the implications of Nelson surviving the battle of Trafalgar begin to hit home. Also, there's all the stuff I said about the interior of Africa, and why it has never been colonized like in our reality; modern African history swerves even more sharply at the climax of this book. But at the very end of the book, something happens that will make you question whether that was really the climax – something that leaves matters so radically changed that as I closed this book, I inwardly kicked myself for not having pre-ordered the next installment.

This fourth of nine Temeraire novels comes between Black Powder War and Victory of Eagles. It only took me one book to get hooked; I plan to work my way through the whole set, if only I can manage my impatience until my next book order arrives. When an unread Naomi Novik book is on my hands, I find, other books that I've started to read lie neglected. Less than halfway through the series, I'm already dreading reaching the end and wonder whether she'll write more of them. It's got just about everything that a fan of Patrick O'Brian or C.S. Forester could wish for, plus dragons – and if you're not convinced that dragons are a plus, just try His Majesty's Dragon (alternate title, Temeraire) and see if you don't get hooked, too.

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