I’m enjoying my re-read of the Temeraire series, as I work to get caught up to the most recent volumes. It’s interesting to see how my opinions have changed since my first reading. As with the previous book, Throne of Jade, I have reduced my rating for Black Powder War. Maybe I’ve grown harsher in my old age. Maybe I was just caught up in enthusiasm for dragons the first time I read this book. Whatever the reason, this time around, I’m not ready to give Black Powder War four stars. It is another good instalment in Temeraire and Laurence’s adventures, but it is not an impressive book by itself.
Naomi Novik continues to deliver exciting new settings and adventures in each book. Throne of Jade relocates Laurence and Temeraire to China, where we learn a great deal about Temeraire’s origins and nature as a Celestial. In this book, Laurence and Temeraire are preparing to return to England but must divert through Istanbul to pick up a couple of eggs the government has purchased from the Ottoman Empire. Shenanigans ensue, of course, and eventually they find themselves stuck in Prussia while Napoleon and his forces beat the Prussian troops soundly at every turn.
This is definitely the kind of series for people who want a little fantasy but mostly history in their historical fantasy. Aside from dragons, there is very little difference between our world and Laurence’s. Though it’s different in China, in most of Europe, dragons are essentially war machines—that is, their existence has not changed much about society or technology beyond how countries wage war. And while Napoleon might have dragons, so too do the other countries, so the presence of dragons has not significantly shifted the course of the Napoleonic wars all that much. Even dragons are not presented as explicitly magical—it’s all science.
Black Powder War continues to develop the nascent thread of abolitionism and liberated ideals that Temeraire seizes upon in Throne of Jade. Having seen how dragons co-exist more congenially with humans in China, he is anxious to spread such reforms to the rest of dragonkind. Novik works this element of his character into the background for the rest of the plot: at various times, we hear about how Temeraire has been “spreading dissent” and deviant ideas to dragons from other countries’ armies. Poor Laurence, who believes human slavery is wrong, is gradually coming to the same understanding about dragons—but an entire lifetime of being raised to view dragons as useful beasts, albeit beasts who talk, is difficult to overturn. In this way, Novik captures a sliver of what it might have been like to be a supporter of slavery in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries: to many people, it was not actually a moral question; it was just the way things were. Laurence, far more cognizant of the challenges Temeraire would face in obtaining dragon civil rights, is just having trouble conceptualizing how to get from where they are now to where Temeraire envisions they could be—just as many people were convinced that slavery, while wrong, was an economic necessity, and that society would collapse without it.
We also get to see Laurence’s independent and critical faculties develop further. He is far away from any source of authority in Her Majesty’s Government. In China he was technically at the service of the diplomats there. Yet in both Istanbul and, later, Prussia, he finds a dearth of superiors to whom he can report. Laurence has to make his own decisions about how to proceed based on the limited information he has. At the same time, it becomes clear that the British government, with so many (figurative) eggs in so many baskets, is making tactical decisions that might, potentially involve hanging Prussia out to dry to protect its own interests. This is something that Laurence understands as a tactician but abhors as a man of honour, and those two parts of him have to reconcile somehow.
There is a little less character development of the supporting cast in this book. A few get killed off. We get a few humorous moments in which Laurence once again feels awkward that Roland is a girl, soon to be a young woman. Granby figures more prominently, because as the senior officer under Laurence, it would be his dubious privilege to try to harness the dragon egg should it hatch before they return to England. All in all, though, this is very much a book about two things: Temeraire’s growing concern with rights, and a massive trek across eastern Asia into Europe.
This series would probably do fine as an HBO, Game of Thrones–style miniseries—though I shudder to think how HBO would put in the gratuitous nudity. The first two books would have exciting naval battles and the exotic locale of China. This one would contribute montages of breathtaking mountain vistas: snow-covered alpine passages, daring escapes from avalanches, and the tortuous trip through the scorching deserts of western Asia into Turkey. Novik makes it all look so easy, and consequently, it is easy to forget that this book spans two continents and several different biomes, finally ending in the bitter night of the North Sea.
You should definitely read this series. You should definitely start at book 1. This book is another great instalment in the series—not a great book by itself, but just enough of a fix for fans to keep you hooked and reading. And really, that’s what I want from a series. It has some interesting subtext, a very meticulously-researched and depicted historical setting, and characters I like. Novik has a good thing going here, and I’ll keep reading.