Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Throne of Jade - Naomi Novik

I picked up my girlfriend's copy of His Majesty's Dragon a while ago when my stack of to read fantasy novels had reached a low and I was pleasantly surprised by it. I'm still not sure if I will stay on board for the whole series, I understand Novik means to write nine books in total, but the second book in the Temeraire series was definitely on my to read list. Although the story picks up where His Majesty's Dragon ended, in many respects Throne of Jade is quite a different book. Novik manages to surprise me a second time.

With the battle of Trafalgar won and the French areal invasion fleet defeated things calm down slightly for Laurence and Temeraire. Until the Chinese show up that is. Their prized Celestial was a gift to the French Emperor Napoleon and they refuse to accept he is now used to fight England's battles. An unworthy activity for such a fine specimen, he must return to China. Laurence finds himself separated from Temeraire and withdrawn from patrol duties. An meeting with the Chinese diplomats turns into a disaster and after a blatant attempt to separate the two permanently Temeraire makes his opinion know by flying away with Laurence to join their fellows in a battle over the Channel.

Since Laurence and Temeraire cannot be parted it and the Chinese refuse to abandon him to the British the only possible compromise seems to be for Laurence to accompany Temeraire on the long journey. Preparations by the nearly desperate British officials are made swiftly and soon the Chinese delegation as well as Laurence and Temeraire are on a dragon transport ship on the high seas. Their journey will take many months and there will certainly be some surprises waiting for them at the end of it.

Throne of Jade starts off familiar enough with some heated discussion by Laurence over Temeraire's treatment as well as a spectacular areal battle in the opening stages of the novel. The character of the novel soon changes though. A large part of the tale is dedicated to the trip to China, which in 1806 could take more than half a year. With little to do on board there is plenty of time for introspection and Laurence does his share of that. The Chinese are obviously trying to get into Temeraire's good graces and pry him away from the barbarians why currently hold his affection. Laurence is not quite sure how to deal with that.

On the other hand he is curious too. Chinamen in the west was far from a common occurrence in those days. They know almost nothing of each other's habits, customs and society. Despite the formidable language barrier, Novik seems to have a more realistic idea on how fast a human can learn a language completely unrelated to their own, progress is being made. These clashes between the their cultures are very well done. I rather enjoyed this part of the book. If you liked the previous book for the relentless pace Novik sets it is going to be a bit of a disappointment but I thought it was one of the better parts of the novel. Laurence and Temeraire grow more on that journey than in the rest of the first two books combined.

As much as I have enjoyed it, the extended journey does not leave all that much of the book to be spent in China. It makes the book as a whole a bit unbalanced. Novik avoids a lot of the Chinese court politics by keeping Laurence and Temeraire locked up in their pavilion for most of their time there. The accommodation reached at the end of the book has very little to do with Laurence himself and a lot of the intrigue goes right over his head. Novik clearly introduces the themes for the next book in the second half of Throne of Jade, one which could potentially be very interesting. With all this growing up the characters do and all the preparing the reader for the next book, Throne of Jade clearly exhibits the symptoms of the middle book syndrome and I don't think that was quite necessary.

Another difference with His Majesty's Dragonn is that we're much less reminded of the historical context of the book. Napoleon is a distant threat for most of it. There are references to the Battle of Austerlitz and the end of the Third Coalition, usually considered one of his biggest victories and to the (second) British takeover of the Dutch Cape Colony but nothing that really touches the story directly. I also get the impression that China is presented as a stronger state than it was at the time, the first cracks in the rule of the Qing dynasty had already appeared by then. There are some hints as to what is going on in the Chinese empire at the time but I would not have minded a bit more detail in this respect.

I enjoyed Throne of Jade just as much as His Majesty's Dragon but for quite different reasons. Both have their flaws but more than enough good points for the balance to be positive. I guess Throne of Jade is a bit harder to like, with little of the book focussed on battles and aerial acrobatics but that is hardly something the author can be expected to keep up for nine books. Perhaps Novik has not quite found the right balance between action and developing her characters and the relationships between them. Something I hope Novik can improve on in the third book Black Powder War. I guess I am on board for one more at least.

Book Details
Title: Throne of Jade
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 399
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-48129-0
First published: 2006


  1. I've heard really good things about His Majesty's Dragon but since it seems to be a very political book, I've shied away from trying it. Though perhaps I will give it a shot one day and will find myself pleasantly surprise.
    Great review!


  2. I'd say give it a go. It's a fun read, not too complicated.