Review: Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read this review if you haven’t read books 1-5 in the series.  If you like fantasy and historical fiction, and haven’t read this series, I highly recommend you pick up book 1, His Majesty’s Dragon.

I had been looking forward to this book for a while, and I was disappointed.  Novik’s Temeraire series is awesome — she rolls together fantasy, history, military fiction, all together with really interesting characters, world travel and compelling stories.  Until this book anyway.

The Temeraire series is set in the time of the Napoleonic wars, only the military uses dragons as fighters.  The dragons are bred and then “bonded” at hatching to a captain.  Each captain has a team that cares for and fights with each dragon.  Captaining a dragon is highly prestigious within the Dragon Corps – although less prestigious outside the Corps.

Temeraire is a dragon who is accidentally hatched and bonded to William Laurence, who is a British naval captain.  Once the bonding process happens it is more or less set, so Laurence and his dragon become a team, and Laurence leaves life at sea for life in the air.  Book 1 in the series deals quite a bit with this change –since Laurence is an outsider he is able to see some of the problems with the Corps that others don’t recognize.  In particular, the dragons are highly intelligent beings, each with unique skills and personalities, yet are treated similarly to animals.  They are fed and cared for and trained, but not compensated.  They are expected from birth to follow British military protocol without ever having chosen that life.

Later books delve more into how the other nations treat their dragons, and the dragons’ own growing desire to attain equal rights and respect.  The societal issues raised by these books are – to me – what makes the books so interesting.  Unfortunately this is one of the things that made Tongues of Serpents feel really empty.

In the last installment of the series, Laurence and Temeraire end up charged with treason and sent to Australia.  My husband thought Novik may have written herself into a corner —  from a military history perspective, Australia is NOT an interesting place to be in the early 1800s.  But still, Australia is a wild, faraway place so I thought there had to be interesting story opportunities to be developed there.  Novik makes China and Africa so interesting in previous books, how can Australia NOT be interesting?

Not so much.  Novik has the characters spend much of the first part of the book complaining about their banishment, living conditions, lack of governance, and most of all the less-palatable food to be found in Australia (kangaroos).  This goes on for some time until Laurence starts to consider what he is actually going to do with his and Temeraire’s time.  They end up with two options: privateering or helping the Australians build a road into the back country.  They choose the latter and off they go with a crew of indentured Australian convicts and the three dragon eggs that Temeraire is guarding, which are to be used to help establish a dragon colony in Australia.

The eggs, and the dragons that hatch from those eggs, are about the only interesting part of the plot.  Novik could have had Temeraire and his friends encounter another dragon colony in Australia but chooses not to.  She also chooses to avoid nearly all military conflict, instead having the dragons fly around over empty land and spend most of the book looking for food and water.  She introduces a few other interesting creatures, but overall the plot is very thin and the action doesn’t pick up until the end.

The interaction between Temeraire and Laurence, which is so well developed in the other books, is really lacking here.  Laurence just seems lifeless and uninteresting, and the other characters are mostly one-dimensional.  Novik could have done a lot more with the younger characters, particularly Demane and Emily Roland (a teenage girl who has grown up in the Corps and now serves as the only female on Laurence’s team).  This book feels very transitional, as if the younger characters and dragons will play a more prominent role in the next book, but it also feels as if Laurence and Temeraire’s stories have reached the end of their development.  I doubt that’s true – there is still the war, relations with China, and Laurence’s military status to deal with.  But all of those things were only hinted at in this book.  Very little happens and none of the conflicts are resolved.

I’ll read the next one when it comes, but with a lot less anticipation.

  3 comments for “Review: Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

  1. August 14, 2010 at 3:33 am

    I still haven’t read this series, so I had to stop at the spoiler’s alert – but thank you for reminding me that I need to!

    • August 14, 2010 at 7:24 am

      Thanks for the visit! The Temeraire series is definitely worth reading. You have a really cool blog, I’m looking forward to Middlemarch Summer!

  2. September 24, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I totally agree with most of your points here, although I’d be more inclined to think that the last third of the book really made up for a lot of it, bringing the book back into the overall plot, including relations with China. However, I do think that Temeraire’s thoughts are _more_ interesting in human spciety – in the middle of a fairly empty Australia they’re not nearly so amusing. Great review!

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