Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is one of the best and most original fantasy/alternate reality series out there. But that said, her last few books have not been as good as the first part of the series.
If the idea of Napoleonic-era history WITH DRAGONS sounds interesting, or you like British nautical historical fiction, definitely check out this series. But please, please start with the first book, His Majesty’s Dragon.
The series begins during the Napoleonic Wars, where William Laurence is a captain in the British Navy. He captures a ship with a valuable dragon’s egg. Unfortunately, when a dragon’s egg hatches, an aviator needs to be nearby to “captain” the dragon. Laurence takes this responsibility instead, losing his career as naval captain and having to learn a much less prestigious one as a dragon aviator. What he gains, however, is a lifelong friendship with Temeraire and an understanding and appreciation for what dragons are about. The British are treating dragons like dumb animals, despite their intelligence, ability to converse with humans, to strategize, etc. In short, this becomes a series not only about fantasy, war, friendship, etc. but also about civil rights and how different cultures/races treat each other. Laurence and Temeraire travel all over the world in their adventures, and the differences in how the Chinese, French, and other civilizations treat their dragons is striking.
The best thing about the series is the vivid characters of the dragons and their relationships with each other and the humans. The next best thing is how every time the British visit a new culture, all of their assumptions about dragons (and pretty much everything else) are challenged.
In this book, which is the 8th of 9 books, Laurence and his companions have been shipwrecked in Japan. Laurence has been captured by the Japanese, who don’t allow any foreigners on their shores (even though in this case it was unintended). Laurence is presumed dead by his companions, except for Temeraire. Unfortunately, Laurence has amnesia and can’t remember anything from the last eight years, which includes his entire history with Temeraire.
The amnesia story was really a weak part of this book, and unfortunately makes up most of the first third. It forces Laurence – and the reader – to basically revisit the events of the last 8 years, plus Laurence has to learn all over again to love and respect Temeraire, and to come to terms with the treason they committed together. He also has to relearn his acceptance of women in the service (another nice thing about these novels). It’s mildly interesting from Temeraire’s perspective but an annoying and unrealistic plot device, since he conveniently remembers back to the date right before he found Temeraire’s egg.
The second part of the book moves quickly and has a lot of action, involving England’s diplomatic relations with the Japanese and their attempt to rout an opium ring deep in the country.
The third part of the book will be great for those who really love the military and combat aspect of these books. Less so for me. Again, Novik revisits social issues like the mistreatment of the Russian dragons, but that’s a minor part of the story and doesn’t really offer anything new.
The very cool thing about the Russian part of the story is that it mirrors certain aspects of War and Peace, and having read that last year, it was kind of fun to revisit the story – WITH DRAGONS. This is alternate history so you never know what will happen.
Since there’s only one book left in the series, you have to read this one, even if it’s not great (I think my husband dropped out around 6). This series is definitely worth it — this book is still a good read even if all 8 books aren’t equally good. But I do think an author as talented as Novik has stayed on this series a bit too long. I do appreciate when an author actually plans in advance how many books to write, and the overall story arc, versus just writing as you go and hoping the publishers want another one. I hope Novik moves on to an equally interesting concept once she’s done with Temeraire (even though I’ll be sorry to see him go).
Note: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an objective review.