Here be Dragons

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Fantasy Review: ‘Black Powder War’ by Naomi Novik

Welcome back and let’s get a recap of the game so far.  In the all black we have Temeraire and let me tell you this dragon is awesome.  Two languages right out of the shell, a roar that destroys anything it’s path, and a captain that will do anything for him.

Facing the mighty Temeraire and his British crew are the French, led by their captain Napoleon.  The Frogs have picked up a great free agent signing, strategy master Lien, the only other Celestial active in the Europeon war.  With a chip on her shoulder against Temeraire, things could get interesting.  After all, the French have a ground game that can’t be stopped, adding an aerial assault could be the end.
AND THERE THEY GO!  The British make a mad rush for some extra points, driving quickly into the land of the Turks to get their hands on eggs of a different sort; fire breathers could add some real diversity to the squad.  But watch out!  Unaware of the Lien signing they are beat to the goal and a heavy defense is set up.  Stalling tactics are worked on both sides and the shot clock is running down, this baby is going to hatch.  Is a daring escape on the way?  Will the British aquire new eggs and get them safely back home?  Or will Lien’s aerial genius combine with Napoleon into on unstoppable power?  Anything can happen in this game of dragons.

Ok enough of that, after three books of this series I didn’t want to do a typically book summery, but damn I should have picked one sport and stuck with it.  What was that, football mixed with basketball? 

Let’s go over the highlights.

I really liked the action, it picked up quite a bit from the last outing.  In Throne of Jade the action was good when it came around, but was an overall slow book.  Compare that to Black Powder War, with a desperate flight instead of a slow boat to China (literally).  There were aerial battles, ground battles victories for both sides, an actually sense of danger.  This is what I am looking for in this series.

Some real intelligence was shown here as well.  Temeraire was a bit of a dreamer last time, head in the clouds.  This time Laurence and his dragon really put their head together and have starting working on some realistic solutions.  I was a bit off put last time by real issues being brought up but given only courtesy glances, this time the issue of dragon equality was given some more depth.

It was enjoyable to see a new dragon that was so heavily influenced by Temeraire, and I am guessing young fire breather could prove to be a nice companion for Laurence and crew.  I really enjoyed the time spent against Napoleon’s land armies, especially when it was apparent that they were often over their head.  There was true tension in this book; if not for Temeraire’s safety at least for the armies he worked with.

My only complaints were the same as I had with the first book, so I won’t repeat them.  Needless to say, this was a quick return to form for the series, and I enjoyed it as much or more than the first book.  It is hard to say much more, because by now the formula has been established.  This was another entertaining and intelligent outing, if not as deep as the book tried to be at certain times.   The action was still superb, the politics simple but realistic, and Temeraire and Laurence’s relationship holds the rest of the book together just fine.

4 stars.  

PS: If you actually took the time to read that intro, I am truly sorry.

Books in the Series
His Majesty’s Dragon
Throne of Jade
Black Powder War

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Fantasy Review: ‘Throne of Jade’ by Naomi Novik

Nathan’s Review:

Am I expecting too much from this series?  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of the first book.  Dragons in the Napoleonic wars just makes so much since.  How did this not happen in real life?  It certainly should have.  The series seems well researched and has the vibe of being intelligent historical fantasy, and yet…  And yet I can’t help but feel this has been a bit shallower than I expected, or at least hoped for.

Again the story follows Temeraire and Captain Laurence, this time as they travel to China.  The Emperor has learned that a mere soldier is riding around on a Dragon meant for royal hands only, and China wants their dragon back.  Going by sea, because going by air would have just been silly, once again half the book meanders along before getting to the main plot (lots of sea travel).  Once in China Temeraire learns how other dragons live, Laurence deals with politics and diplomacy, and the whole story is wrapped up with the most simplistic solution in a dragon book possible (outside of a dragon just eating everyone).

I am teased with a deeper book, but the author pulls back.   Temeraire sees a slave revolt, then starts looking at his own station in life and making comparisons.  Are we going to look a little deeper into the intelligence of dragons and what it means to use them as war engines?  No, Temeraire is placated with unspecific promises and lets it sit in the back ground.  Later on in China we see a poor dragon that barely earns enough to live.  Perhaps a look at the price of freedom for Temeraire to think about?  Not really, never thought about again.  We also contemplate the lack of speech and its correlation with intelligence after a sea dragon’s attack.  Net result?  A brooding dragon for a short time, then also forgotten.

Oh yes the ending.  Did I mention it was simple?  Incredibly simple.  The solution to the whole book’s issue came down to “let’s try this, think it will work?, don’t see why not.”  And yes, it worked.  So they traveled all over the world for a solution that came up in idle conversation.

Ok stop, enough negative.  The book was not that bad, I jumped right into the next one to finish of the omnibus.  Novik writes very exciting action when she gets to it.  Battles are easy to follow with strong visuals; they don’t drag on nor last even a page too long.  The battle with the sea serpent was good, a siege later on in the book was even better.  There were some interactions between people of different cultures that I also found interesting.  Some of the crew had no problem interacting with the strange to them Chinese culture, while others were more reluctant.

Certainly not a bad book and maybe it is even a very good book.  It very well may be that my expectations were set for a different book than the author had in mind.

3 Stars

Pauline’s Review:

This is the second book in the alternate history series about Temeraire, the dragon captured as an egg from the French and inadvertently hatched at sea and induced into captivity by the ship’s captain, Will Laurence. Where the first book focused on Temeraire’s growth and training as a part of the Aerial Corps, engaged in fighting the French during the Napoleonic wars, this book is about his personal history. For it turns out that Temeraire is a rare Chinese Celestial dragon, the egg was sent as a gift to Napoleon, and the Chinese are not happy about him being deployed in the war, ridden by a mere naval officer, and want him back. Relations with the Chinese are delicate, so Temeraire and Laurence are packed off to Peking to negotiate some kind of deal.

This book has the same characteristics as the first, being more about the formality of language and manners than action. There are some quite dramatic encounters, but these episodes are brief. The highlight for me is, as before, Temeraire himself, who is by far the most interesting character in the book. He has a refreshingly straightforward attitude to life, and time after time Laurence is forced to attempt to justify his own society’s customs and morals against Temeraire’s much more liberal ideas. These discussions are fascinating – Laurence is a product of his own era of history, and there are many ideas which he accepts without thinking, and others where he has absorbed his family’s somewhat different ideas (he is against slavery, for instance, even though it is still legal in Britain). For instance, it is fascinating to juxtapose Temeraire’s instinctive feeling that it is wrong to flog or hang a man, with the obvious need to maintain discipline aboard ship. The Chinese have very different ways of treating dragons, too, and Laurence is forced to acknowledge, against his natural feeling, that they do some things better than the west.

I have no idea how accurate the depiction of Chinese life of the era is, or whether the author has taken liberties, but it all seemed very plausible to me. There were some fascinating details, for instance the ceremony on board ship when crossing the equator, which the author mentions in passing without going into much detail. Both the Chinese delegation and Temeraire himself are mystified by the whole thing, but the author resists the temptation to info-dump all her research on the subject, writing as if we were of the period and would naturally know all about it. I rather like this minimalist approach, which suits the book very well, giving it almost an authentic air of having been written in 1806.

This is actually a thought-provoking book in many ways, addressing a number of ideas head on, such as slavery versus voluntary service, and others less directly, such as the absolute will of an emperor versus the democratic monarchy system prevailing in Britain. It’s not a high-action book, although there are episodes of drama, but in some cases they feel rather bolted on as an afterthought to ramp up the tension. However, the tension between the British and the Chinese is nicely done, and the slow but definite way in which the barriers begin to dissolve and the two sides inch their way towards an understanding is beautifully described. In the end, everything hinges on trust, or the lack of it, and the resolution is both frighteningly dramatic and ultimately very satisfying. Once again, I enjoyed this book unreservedly, and although it wouldn’t suit everyone, for me it’s another five star affair. I’m almost nervous to read any further in the series in case this high standard comes crashing down. Can any author sustain the ideas and this level of writing for nine books? It’s hard to imagine.[First posted on Goodreads September 2012]

Books in the Series
His Majesty’s Dragon
Throne of Jade
Black Powder War

Fantasy Review: ‘His Majesty’s Dragon’ by Naomi Novik

Nathan’s Review:

Oh friggen sweet.  Ok, so here’s how it is.  This stuffy British sea captain wipes the deck with a frenchie ship (ha, wipes the deck).  When they take control of the ship it has this giant egg on it, because it turns out there are dragons.  This egg is about to hatch so he makes his crew draw straws on who is going to be its best bud because these crazy people don’t want their very own dragon and it is a punishment or something.  But when the egg hatchets and the loser kid tries to talk with him the dragon is like, oh hell no I ain’t running with no lackey, where is the big dog on this boat?  He finds the captain and talks to him in perfect English saying, you and me man.

So Captain Laurence has this dragon, and doesn’t know what to name him, so he calls him Temeraire after some lame ship or something.  And the dragon is really smart, but because they are new they have to go off and train on how to be a useful in a fight.  Which is awesome, because I totally read all the Pern books and those dragons NEVER fought, they just flew around people and shot falling strings out of the sky.  But in this book Europe is at some war between the English and the French, and they totally load the dragons up with gunmen and bombs and attack ships and other dragons with them.
So here I am, all psyched out because Laurence keeps telling Temeraire about all these dragon battles, but the first two thirds of the book are about training.  Laurence is a Navy man, and he knows he is so much better than the hippies in the air corp, so he spends his time showing them how to be more duty bound and clean cut and the right way to do things.  It is okay though, he doesn’t always know what’s right, and sometimes other people have to call him out on it.  Like when he is shocked to see girls with dragons too.  Sure there wasn’t much fighting, but I guess I can reluctantly admit I was interested never less, because I am kinda a softy and Laurence and Temeraire are getting tight together.

Then bam, they get a mission.  And this Napoleon dude is craftier than people think, and he totally tricks everyone and now it’s up to the dragons to save the day, including Temeraire even though he isn’t trained all the way. And it is exciting, and I can feel the tension and hear the rifles and everything else I want in a battle.  There are different kinds of dragons doing different things, and Laurence thinks of them as ships and so he comes up with strategies no else thought of.  It was awesome.

I got bummed a little though, because Laurance was such a stuffy pants he was boring sometimes.  And it was weird how he was such a bad judge of character and so hoity toity but people still thought he was cool, even the people who didn’t like him change their mind.  And as cool as it was, sometimes my brain hurt when I tried to figure out stuff like how they could hold normal conversations while flying through the air and how people could hold so steady when riding a giant flapping animal and how many cows does a dragon have to eat a day and where do they all come from?

4 stars
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Pauline’s Review:

This has a very simple premise: imagine the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons. It sounds mad, but actually it works astonishingly well. The author manages to capture the ethos of the times perfectly – the class system, the rigid formality of manners, the somewhat florid language – while still creating a fascinating work of fantasy.

The starting point is the acquisition of a dragon egg from a captured French frigate, which inconveniently decides to hatch while the British ship is still returning to port. Not wanting to allow such a prize to go to waste, the crew, or rather the officers (that’s the class system at work again), decide to see if the dragon will accept a harness. As it happens, it is the Captain, Will Laurence, who manages it and has to leave the Navy and join the dragon corps as a result. His regrets about this, which he regards as being cast out from good society, and how he comes to terms with his situation, form a good part of the book. It is interesting that he is now regarded as a pariah both by his own sector of society, including his family, and also by the Aerial Corps personnel, who see him as coming from outside their close-knit and unorthodox culture, completely untrained, and resent him walking off with a prize dragon when they have (in their own eyes) far more suitable and highly trained people.

There is a certain amount of action, since the dragons are all trained for aerial combat as part of the war effort against the French, but the focus is very much on the characters – both the humans who live with the dragons, and of course the dragons themselves, who are very much characters in their own right. Laurence’s dragon, the Temeraire of the title, is in fact by far the most interesting character here, being highly intelligent and curious and somewhat radical in his politics, which puts Laurence rather on the defensive, forced to justify the customs he himself takes for granted. Laurence spends quite a lot of his free time reading to Temeraire, including scientific works which Laurence himself doesn’t pretend to understand, but the dragon does. It must be a bit like having a very precocious child, I suppose. The relationship is a close one, and there are some wonderful moments between man and dragon. To be honest, Laurence himself struck me as a difficult person to like in many ways, since he has very rigid ideas of propriety – a very prickly man – but his affection for Temeraire is charming.

The dragons are quite carefully thought out. There are various wild species which have been bred and cross-bred for aerial combat purposes for centuries, and different nationalities have bred their own varieties with different characteristics. Only some can breathe fire, for instance, and none of the British ones can, but they have a variety which can spit acid, for instance. Unlike the Pern variety, these dragons aren’t telepathic and they talk quite normally, but there is a very strong bond between dragon and handler, even if the handler mistreats his dragon (I found poor Levitas very distressing to read about). Nice, too, that there are female dragon handlers, although true to the times, this is by the choice of the dragons, not a blow for feminism. Laurence was quite shocked by the idea (but then Laurence is easily shocked, it has to be said). I also liked the idea that, since dragon handlers have much shorter lifespans than dragons, handlers try to arrange for a son (or daughter) to take over when they die, and there is a certain amount of pragmatic breeding of humans for the purpose – the author has obviously put a lot of thought into details like this.

The plot develops quite nicely, although it really isn’t particularly important. The objective is to describe the society of two hundred years ago as it would have been if there were dragons in the world then, and this the author does brilliantly. One could argue that access to dragons over many previous centuries would have changed history far more than is evident here – would there even be a Napoleon and a Nelson, for instance? But that hardly matters.

The writing style is perfectly in keeping with the period, and so is the behaviour of the characters. It might seem a bit slow, and not everyone would enjoy the formal language used, but I loved it. I liked the whole idea of the Aerial Corps, with its slightly informal air, and the way the larger dragons go into battle loaded with gunners and bombers and whole teams of crew, rather like a ship of the air. This makes the battles quite unusual, with attempts to board enemy dragons and hand to hand combat (with swords and pistols!) while strapped on to a dragon conducting his or her own form of combat. This is one of those rare books where I actually didn’t want it to end. Luckily there are nine books in the series to date, so those who want can indulge their enjoyment of Temeraire for quite some time. Five stars. [First posted Spetember 2012 to Goodreads]
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Anachronist’s Review:

What I liked:

I loved the dragons, I really loved them or rather the great imagination of Ms Novik which supplied them with colourful hides, intelligence and power of speech. Temeraire is my most favourite dragon in fantasy fiction, I am not joking! He is sweet, loyal, he knows French, Latin and English, he loves mathematics, jewelry and reading! He can’t read on his own but his faithful handler and friend, Lawrence is always happy to oblige!My other source of joy: some dragons tolerate only women handlers! Yes, just imagine it: a lady straight from the salon of Jane Austen riding a dragon, EVEN being made an officer in the army! It was a dare but it paid off – the notion was great in practice but I do regret the women weren’t given a more pronounced role in that installment. Still I hope there will be more of them in the next ones and the author deserves kudos for the mere idea! It was as if equal rights for women were imposed on the English society some 200 years earlier, imagine that!

The book is really about the developing relationship between Temeraire, the Dragon won from the French in battle, and Captain Laurence. I admit that, at times the relationship seemed a little weird. Let me give it to you straight – there are the homoerotic undertones clearly present. Is the dragon Laurence’s lover? He is given gifts of jewelry, he had fits of jealousy, and does Laurence really call that 10-ton creature “my dear” time and again ? (pst pst – yes, he does). One time he even makes his beloved pet very excited indeed if you get my drift…it was an accident as Laurence didn’t know what he was doing but still…and you know what? It worked for me! These two had a very unusual dynamics – William does things like reading books to Temeraire, or giving him baths, that the other aviators just don’t do. And in his own, unassuming way, Laurence upsets the status quo. This isn’t, generally, a good idea if you happen to be in a military outfit—less so when it’s the nineteenth century. What can be said: I understood. I love my pretty, pretty dragons and I know pets can be pretty jealous as I am the owner of a very jealous dog!

What I didn’t like:

I admit the narration was predictable – you could see plot twists coming a mile away – but that doesn’t make the story any less satisfying. Have I mentioned all those pretty dragons? And yes, the book is rather one big adventure than something character-driven but…the dragons!!!

Final verdict:

His Majesty’s Dragon is a fantastic combination of wit and humour with conflict and difficult decisions. It is also one of the best books featuring a dragon as a main character I’ve read so far. Paolini’s immature rendition of a draconian ‘plaything’ doesn’t even come close to this complex tale of love, loyalty and sacrifices. You may find some parts of the story hard going, but if you persist, it’s totally worth it. Personally I am in for another installment!!!Give me more dragons!!! Five stars!!!
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Books in the Series
His Majesty’s Dragon
Throne of Jade
Black Powder War

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