Empire of Ivory is the fourth book in Naomi Novik's successful Temeraire series. I read the first three in the last couple of months and found them to be fast, fun reads. The third book, Black Powder War, showed some serious flaws however and I must admit I feared Novik had run out of steam at this point in the series. In Empire of Ivory Novik offers a better story but it's not entirely without its problems either. Nothing that will discourage a fan of this serious though, it is another fast, fun novel with a promise of a quite dramatic book five at the end of it.
Captain Will Laurence and Temeraire have finally managed to make their way back to Britain only to find the Aerial Corps in shambles. A disease has struck the dragons, leaving many of them unable to perform their duties. Several dragons have already died and only a handful are still unaffected by the disease. Temeraire and the feral dragons that accompanied him are quickly put on patrol duty to at least keep up the appearance of a stout areal defence. The French have been probing for weaknesses and it is only a matter of time before the state of the British defences become know.
When Temeraire tries to intercept a small French messenger dragon who has seen the quarantined sick dragons he is accidentally exposed to the illness. Surprisingly enough he turns out to be immune and this provides a clue to a possible treatment for the disease. At their stopover in the Cape Colony on their way to China, events depicted in Throne of Jade, Temeraire recovered from the very symptoms that now plague his colleagues. An expedition is mounted to the Cape to find out what element of Temeraire's diet has proven essential to his recovery. The must hurry, time is running out for many of the dragons and Napoleon has clearly not given up on invading England.
What struck me most about this book is the extend to which Novik deviates from history as we know it. Until now she has depicted events more or less as we know them from the history books. Although there are clues throughout the books that the history of the new world in particular has been drastically altered by the presence of dragons, in Europe things seem to be pretty much what we expect. The first thing that struck me is the fact that Nelson survived the Battle of Trafalgar. This may have been mentioned in His Majesty's Dragon in which the battle plays a role. I must admit I can't remember the scene in that much detail. Laurence meets him several times in this book. He's depicted as a not unpleasant but rather vain man.
The history of the Cape Colony is also very drastically altered in the book. The region changed hands a couple of times during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars before becoming permanently British in 1806 (until it became South Africa in 1910). When Laurence and Temeraire arrive in 1807 the provisional governor Henry George Grey is still at the helm. Events triggered by Laurence and Temeraire moving into Africa's interior, they travel as far as the Victoria Falls, which had not been named such of course, Victoria would be born in 1819, and find an Africa affected by Slave trade and the coastal settlements of various European countries but still firmly independent. I'm not going to say too much about it to avoid spoilers but it looks like dragons are going to severely impact the colonization of Africa.
Temeraire's ambitions to improve conditions for dragons in Britain is mostly pushed to the background. Although Novik devotes some attention to the parallel abolitionist movement, demands of the moment push it mostly into the background. A bit of a shame since Temeraire's plans could have made for some interesting political struggles. In fact, the last books seemed to promise some more action this point and I was a bit disappointed to see it downplayed in favour of exploring the more exotic parts of the African interior. Given the ending of Empire of Ivory it doesn't look like Temeraire will make much progress in the next book, Victory of Eagles, either. That sense of adventure is one of the more attractive parts of the series however, so perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me.
In the end Empire of Ivory offers a better structured and more complete story arc of its own, centred on the mysterious disease, than the previous book. I have seem some complaints in other reviews that the novel takes its time to get going but that is certainly not my experience. It does take a little time get reacquainted with the situation in England, which after an absence of a year can hardly be a surprise. It does end in a major cliffhanger however. If you don't like that in a book then this one might be a bit annoying for you. I think the ending does offer some interesting action in book five but on the other hand some of the heavier themes in the books are not quite given the attention they deserve and the series remains rather light because of that. Still, it is good to see Novik improve on the rather poor Black Powder War, it will be interesting to see if she can keep the momentum going in Victory of Eagles.
Title: Empire of Ivory
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2007