Tongue of Serpents is the sixth book in Naomi Novik's successful Temeraire series. I understand Novik means to write three more, ending the series with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Novik's mix of dragons and history proved addictive for many readers but I must admit that I felt the series was running out of steam after reading the fifth book, Victory of Eagles. Given my reaction to the last book in the series I wasn't sure if I wanted to read the next novel as well. I did so anyway last week, my to read stack currently consists of a lot of pretty heavy reading and once in a while I am in the mood for something lighter. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be the weakest in the series so far.
After Laurence's antics during the French invasion of England, he manages to escape the death penalty for high-treason, more in particular, for delivering the cure to the mysterious disease that struck the British dragons to France thereby prevent more dragons dying of the illness. Instead being hanged, Laurence and Temeraire, carrying three dragon eggs, are sent to the recently founded colony in Australia to start a new covert. Laurence is less than pleased to be so far away from the war against Napoleon and to make matters worse, the colony is not in a particularly good shape.
Rebellion wrecked the colony recently and the governor appointed by the Crown, William Bligh, has been deposed. He refused to return to England however, biding his time on Van Diemen's Land. With the arrival of Laurence and Temeraire, accompanied by a good number of marines, he sees a chance to return to power. Something that will make Laurence's stay in Australia thoroughly unpleasant. Matters become even worse when one of the dragon eggs disappears during a scouting expedition in the Blue Mountains.
Novik did not make things easy on herself, sending her heroes of to the one part of the planet that is furthest away from the action at the time. The colony at Botany Bay was founded in 1788 and some two decades later it is still not much to look at. It is still mostly a penal colony. Novik uses the Rum Rebellion of 1808 as a background for the story. It takes place some time before Laurence arrives in 1809 but because of the long lines of communication word has not reached England yet. I read an account of this event some years back in The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. It's an interesting piece of Australian history but it is mostly background for Novik's story and from what I remember of that book, Novik doesn't stay all that close to actual history. The rather superficial treatment the Australian continent and some of the more notable historical characters receive in this novel surprised me a bit. Other parts of the series use much more accurate historical detail.
Most of the novel is actually taken up by Laurence and Temeraire chasing after the stolen dragon egg through the interior of Australia. We pass by Lake Eyre and Ayers Rock, before heading north in the direction of where today the city of Darwin is located. This trip seals Laurence off from events in the wider world even more. One would expect Novik to pay a little more attention to the Aboriginal cultures that Laurence must have undoubtedly passed on this trip but they are mostly absent in the book. To provide some tension in the story Novik introduces a Chinese attempt to set up a trading post in Australia. The geopolitical significance of this move is not lost on Laurence but being the adopted son of the emperor, it does put him in a difficult position.
The whole plot feels very forced, Novik has to introduce some unlikely developments into the story to keep the story arc somewhat interesting. While she succeeds in this to some extend, the overall plot of the series doesn't seem to move forward one bit. When Laurence returns from this inland trip, he is no closer to returning to the struggle with the French than he is at the beginning of the novel. Since Napoleon is unlikely to invade Australia in the next book, Novik still has to come up with something plausible to get Laurence and Temeraire out of there. I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up somewhere in the New World from the hints the author drops but I guess we'll have to read and find out.
Tongue of Serpents is not a long novel but even if we take that into account, Novik achieves very little in that space except expose the reader to yet another hard and long journey. I'm not easily bored when reading, even if the book is not 'fast-paced' by today's standards but I do feel I have just read a whole lot of filler and very little substance. Novik does not even come close to the standard she set in the first novel in this series, His Majesty's Dragon. Given the problems with previous novels I had not really expected a book as good as that but Novik disappointed me nonetheless. It's a lacklustre effort by an author who has shown she can do much better. Hopefully she can recover from this low in the next volume.
Title: Tongues of Serpents
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
First published: 2010