Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Black Powder War - Naomi Novik

With Black Powder War Novik finishes the first arc in her successful Temeraire series. The first two books in the series were surprisingly entertaining. I generally prefer my dragon in small doses so I read books including this fantasy trope only once in a while. Both His Majesty's Dragon and Throne of Jade were good, if not flawless, reads in their own way. I enjoyed Black Powder War as well but I am beginning to fear this series won't keep me interested much longer. Laurence and Temeraire have a fine adventure but this book is very much a middle book.

After surviving a fierce round of Chinese court intrigue and ending up as adopted Chinese royalty, it is time for Temeraire and Laurence to consider their return trip to England. A trip that becomes all the more urgent when orders arrive asking Laurence to travel to Istanbul where the British have bought three valuable dragon eggs for a considerable sum of money. The eggs are to be transported to England before they hatch. Before they can begin their trip from Macao to Istanbul however, disaster strikes their transport and a large fire breaks out on board. The ship can be saved but needs extensive repairs. This delay is simply not acceptable. Laurence and Temeraire opt for the dangerous journey overland.

After a long and dangerous journey Laurence finds Istanbul not quite what he hoped for. The British ambassador seems to have perished in an accident and the Sultan insists he has not received the payment. The money is missing and to make matters worse, Lien, one of the Chinese dragons involved in a recent attempt to replace the emperor and a bitter enemy of Temeraire, has made an appearance. Somehow Laurence must manage to acquire the eggs and handle an ever impatient dragon, intend on returning to England and applying some of the things he has learnt in China to improve the living conditions for British dragons. Their journey is far from over. It seems the road back to Dover is long and winding indeed.

Novik's novels are perhaps more historical than fantasy and this a large part of this novel is devoted to the battle of Jena-Auerstedt, fought in October 1806, where, how can I put this gently, the Prussians got their ass handed to them by the French, removing Prussia from the War of the Fourth coalition. Dragons, unfortunately for the Prussians, did not change that outcome one bit it appears. Novik's descriptions of the battle and the entire campaign are vivid and one can't help but feel sympathy for Temeraire and her crew, being caught up in a major defeat of one of their allies without being able to alter the outcome at all. Oddly enough there is no mention of this event in the cover text, leading me to believe the important events in this book would be set in the Ottoman Empire.

A lot of this book is about getting Temeraire and his crew from one part of the world to another, which is what a lot of Throne of Jade was dedicated to al well. I don't feel Novik manages to use the time in transit to develop her characters quite as effectively as in the second book. The battle in Germany felt like a detour to me. It shows us a nice piece of history, the author uses it to some extend as a learning experience to the still very naive dragon, but other than that it does not seem to be all that necessary for the plot. The storyline concerning the eggs Laurence is sent to Istanbul for, seems to more or less put on hold while they fight the battle. Quite odd since, again, the significance of these dragon eggs to the overall story is not clear.

It's not all bad though. Temeraire's naivete is still endearing, as are Laurence's attempts to shield him for what he feels must be certain disappointment when finding out England will not be all that interested in improving conditions for its dragons are comical at times. The emancipation of dragons theme is something which I had expected to be more prominent in this book but when it does come up, Novik offers an interesting parallel with the abolition of slavery by the Brittish, a hotly debated issue at the time. There seems to be enough opportunity to add a little depth to the plot but alas, it is not happening in this book. The ending, and I'll try not to spoil it for you, is quite abrupt and not very uplifting. In a way Laurence and Temeraire can claim victory but one obviously overshadowed but the catastrophe that is the war in Prussia. The book also ends rather abruptly. It would have been nice to have gotten a glance at England before the end of the book but Novik saves that for the fourth book in the series, Empire of Ivory.

Black Powder War is an entertaining read and those who enjoyed the first two books will want to read it. It falls short of the standard set in the first two novels though. I found the meandering plot to be the largest problem. Mostly the novel is one big bridge from resolving Temeraire's problems in China to getting back to England with very little else added to the story. It sets a brisk pace and I very much appreciated the historical part of the novel but that does not make up for it's flaws. I'm hoping for better things in the next book. If not, this series is in trouble.

Book Details
Title: Black Powder War
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 365
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-48130-6
First published: 2006

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