Friday, February 5, 2021

League of Dragons

League of Dragons
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 14+

The Napoleonic wars, historically re-imagined with the addition of an aerial corps of men and women mounted on dragons, come to a thrilling conclusion in this book. To be sure, it's a battle in Chapter 17 (out of 22) that beats them all into a three-cornered hat; as suspenseful and exciting as the subsequent encounters are, there's something just a tad anticlimactic about the final outcome. But as in eight books before it, this novel shines as a work of well-informed historical revision, with authentic period details and speaking voices blended seamlessly with engrossing fantasy inventions.

This is the installment in which concerned parents Temeraire and Iskierka rush to the rescue – or rather, are lured – of their egg, who hatches out to be quite extraordinary even as dragons go. It's the one in which Laurence's much-abused sense of personal honor puts him in the uniquely bizarre position of becoming Europe's greatest hero, and feeling ashamed. This is a blade that cuts at his conscience in several directions, from a captivity during which he is treated as Napoelon's honored, personal guest to a victory in which he receives more credit than he considers his due. And of course, this is the one where you get to witness first-hand what happens when you cross a fire-breather with a dragon whose roar can shatter mountains. Wow.

Crowning all are the lead characters, Captain (eventually Admiral) William Laurence and his winged companion, Temeraire. Their loyalty and, indeed, love toward each other has been put to every conceivable test, including conviction for treason, disgrace, exile, financial ruin, and a bout of memory loss. Now, when the possibility of winning Europe back from the clutches of the Corsican tyrant is at last within reach, everything seems to depend on whether they will betray the cause of dragons' equality with mankind, on which they have already staked so much. But actually, it depends on Laurence taking command of a set of junior officers who seem to have been selected on purpose to punish him for his sins. Melding them into a fighting force and staving off a threat of mutiny have never been more important, with the outcome of the whole war possibly at stake.

At the same time, we see Temeraire making painful sacrifices and going to heroic lengths to build a new world order for dragons, before other members of his often mistreated kind take up Napoleon's tempting offers of something superficially like it. Changing the way people and dragons manage things between them suddenly seems important to the nations of Europe. Spreading the word about the changes could be a matter of victory or defeat, determining the course of a whole continent for years to come. But how do you win dragons to a political cause, much less to fight in a war? Through a combination of making world-changing guarantees of basic dragon rights, persuading them to accept prizes deposited into a bank account in lieu of treasure, and managing supply-train miracles to feed hundreds of dragons at all points of an ever-changing strategic map. As the war comes to its final crisis, Temeraire and Laurence stand at the levers that will move the world.

Here is a richly imagined world, full of wonderful characters, all hard to say goodbye to. We leave them on a promising note – so promising that I truly hope this books description as "the final Temeraire novel" will not stand. Sure, the Napoleon bit is over and everything after that, to which we can relate our world's history, is either hidden from sight or just an anticlimax. Sure, there's a good reason so many series of warfare novels begin and end within the Napoleonic conflict: That was kind of the peak of the romance of warfare, with a broad sweep yet not so technologically advanced as to start taking the human element out of it. And I suppose a book about how Laurence and Temeraire settled down and grew old together wouldn't be all that thrilling. But still, my imagination and my heart cling to the thought that there is still more to tell – maybe in another century, with another war, with dragons and humans fighting together on a new footing.

So, yes, at least for now, this is the last of nine Temeraire novels by the author of A Deadly Education, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. I've loved every book I've read by her with one exception, and I have to forgive that anomaly because it was a one-time collaboration with another artist and didn't make use of Novik's best gifts. What are they, you ask? Why, her special gifts are vivid characters, crisp dialogue, an elegant and eloquent writing style, and a knack for blending world-building innovation with fruitful historical research. She conjures a world full of thought-provoking politics, exciting battles and characters, both warm- and cold-blooded, who inspire love. I'll be reading more of her stuff. Just you wait and see.

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