I’ve already gushed several times about my fondness for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — it’s the Napoleonic Wars … with dragons! Which sounds a bit silly but as someone who’s not a frequent reader of fantasy, I found the series enthralling. I was tipped to it, by the way, from an unlikely source — the romance site Smart Bitches Trashy Books, where I was scanning through their highly graded reviews (of which there are not that many — unlike most romance sites, these women are tough graders). I came across the review for His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book in the series, and was intrigued, even though I don’t think I’d read anything with dragons since an Anne McCaffrey book or two when I was a kid and they didn’t really stick. Harry Potter doesn’t count. Anyway I rushed through the first five … and then had to stop and wait for Novik to publish her next one. Which finally happened this month, and I wanted it so badly that I downloaded it onto my Kindle and read it.
(Small diversion here: I find I don’t read all that much on the Kindle, since I have such preposterous access to books on the job, but I think it is extremely useful for two things: 1) Classics, which you’d like to read someday but aren’t necessarily sitting on your public library shelf. They are way out of copyright and thus cheap as hell on the Kindle — I have loaded mine up with pretty much all of Dickens, Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell and dammit someday I really am going to read them and 2) when a new hardcover comes out that you must have THIS VERY INSTANT and you’re not willing to sit around and wait for the library copy to show up — in that case, the Kindle is cheaper than buying the physical version and has the added attraction of being instant. That was the case, for me, with Tongues of Serpents.)
OK back to the book.
It’s been long enough that I actually wish I had gone back and re-read the previous books in the series — I knew the general outlines of why the characters were where they were (Australia, or as it was called at the time New South Wales) but some of the minor characters escaped me. It would be cool if series novels had little reviews like “previously on” segments of TV shows on DVD. Then again, I could easily have just looked up the earlier books myself on Amazon or LibraryThing or Novik’s own website, I suppose.
There wasn’t a whole lot of action in this one, in which the dragon Temeraire and his human “handler,” more like partner, Laurence are sent across Australia looking first for a potential traveling route and later for a stolen dragon egg. What makes this series so great, though, and this book worth the while if you’re already into the series, is the characterization and specifically the relationships between dragons and people. The dragons are intelligent, highly so — there are ways Temeraire outstrips Laurence, such as mathematics and languages. But the dragons have far less sense of duty to King and country and overwhelming loyalty to one person — his or her handler — so persuading the dragon to do what you want can be an interesting negotiation. This is especially true for Temeraire, who was Chinese-bred and has seen China, where dragons are treated far better than in Europe. In the middle of that, the people have to navigate their own worlds where military and diplomatic protocol matter … but so do morals and ethics. So Laurence, for example, has to deal with the attempts by William Bligh (of Bounty fame) who has been overthrown as the colony’s governor and wants Temeraire to help re-install him — even though it’s clear that pretty much everyone on the continent hates his guts and he’s a terrible administrator.
But it’s not all complicated emotion — it’s all done with a nice light touch and a lot of it is quite funny, especially with the firebreathing dragon Izkierka, whose handler is Laurence’s (and Temeraire’s) former first lieutenant and who gets some interesting ideas of her own.
Does this all sound crazy? Maybe it is — but it makes for an interesting setup and all kinds permutations that you could never have in straight-up historical novels of, say, Patrick O’Brian or Bernard Cornwell. I’m giving this one 3.5 stars just because I have high standards for Novik but I still recommend reading it — though not if it’s your first one. This is a series you want to read in order, from the beginning. We have the first four in the series in the collection of the Monroe County Library.