Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Blood of Tyrants

Blood of Tyrants
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

It'll be no surprise to those who have read this far in the Temeraire series that this book gives them three distinct adventures, mingling history and fantasy in increasingly rich ways. "Part I" brings British aviator Will Laurence and his dragon partner Temeraire to the shores of Japan, where a shipboard mishap casts Laurence up on a hostile shore with no memory of his last eight years – and it has been only six since Temeraire hatched and propelled his career from the Royal Navy to the Aerial Corps. Captured in a country where outsiders are condemned to death for setting foot anywhere outside the port of Nagasaki, the confused Laurence stages a desperate escape while Temeraire goes spare trying to find him. Exciting as that is – colored by Shogun-era Japanese culture with the twist that dragons live among people as high-ranking nobles, and complete with sword fights, dilemmas of honor and terrible creatures of the deep – it's only prologue to "Part II," which has hardly opened when Laurence saves the crown prince of China from assassination.

This phase of their adventure takes Temeraire and Laurence deep into the Chinese countryside, where their mission – to ferret out a rebellion against the Emperor and an opium smuggling operation – is hampered by treachery. The pair are separated from some old friends, reunited with others, and face the supreme test of their relationship right at the point where Laurence's memory starts to come back. Once again, the love between a man and a dragon proves stronger than anything else they have faced. And that's a good thing, because in "Part III," they're going to face Napoleon himself on his 1812 march to Moscow.

The final third of the novel turns one of the pivotal military campaigns of modern history on its head. The addition of 300 Chinese warrior dragons to the Russian side would be enough, by itself, to alter history out of all recognition. But even so, Moscow burns just like it did in real life; Napoleon and his generals strike back with devastating shrewdness, taking full advantage of the Russian Empire's brutally backward approach to dealing with dragons. With his Chinese allies, his dragon companion and his own heart rebelling against the role they must play – on the wrong side of history, in terms of how dragons are treated – Laurence faces the real possibility that all their advantage over the French armies will vanish into thin air.

It's an alternate history crowded with personalities, both real (such as Gens. Kutuzov and Barclay de Tolly, Marshall Murat and Tsar Alexander) and imagined (including many new-to-you breeds of dragon, and one politically important egg). The course of its events is both familiar (if you've read War and Peace) and hair-raisingly unexpected. Just when you're sure things are going one way, they turn on a dime and take off in a new direction. It's smart, emotionally engaging fun, varying in intensity from nail-biting tension to bewilderingly swift action. We find Temeraire considering ideas wholly new to him; we find Laurence struggling with his conscience; we meet a new character who may yet prove to be either a great friend or an even greater enemy; and once again, we see how one remarkable pair of people – because dragons are people, you know – can do much to change history without being world leaders or great conquerors. We hear period dialogue, see period mores challenged by the irregular conditions of service in a dragon corps, and experience history through a cryptid-enhanced lens that could be wacky (see, for example, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) but proves to be as convincing as the real thing. Maybe better. It's cracking good reading.

This is the eighth of the nine Temeraire novels; after it comes League of Dragons. Novik is also the author of Uprooted and Spinning Silver.

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