Review of Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik
Tongues of Serpents
by Naomi Novik
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I have been remiss in my Temeraire reading. I am way behind now, and with the series ending, it is time to catch up. (I say this, but I don’t actually own the next books and have no intention of buying them in the near future, because I have a ton of other stuff to catch up on. Hah. We’ll see how that goes.) Naomi Novik has always managed to keep the series fresh by sending Temeraire and Laurence off to new and interesting locations. From the coast of Great Britain to China to the heart of Africa, this alternative history series isn’t just about fighting the Napoleonic War. Its scope has grown so much, as have its characters.
In Tongues of Serpents, the sixth book, Novik sends Laurence and Temeraire to Australia—then a fledgling penal colony. The arduous journey has taken months, and when they arrive, they find that the British-appointed governor has been overthrown. Oops. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Laurence and Temeraire would soon find themselves embroiled in a power struggle, but Novik soon has them penetrating the arid interior of the continent, on the track of a stolen dragon egg. Oh, and Rankin is back!
I’ll come right out and say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as previous Temeraire books. For me, it’s just lacking most of the things I love about this series. There is very little political intrigue—oh, on the surface it looks like there should be, what with the rebellion and the larger backdrop of China’s trading gambit. Unfortunately, Temeraire and Laurence don’t really engage in this and struggle with it in the same way that they have engaged in the past. They more stumble from one crisis to the next, with very little in the way of a plan of attack. It’s not a proactive novel.
This is particularly true of the middle, and largest, portion of the book, which is essentially a protracted trek through the interior of Australia. What I thought would be the first act, to be concluded with the two of them returning to Sydney and carrying on with a bigger plot, stretched out for nearly the whole novel. Now, chasing a stolen dragon egg could have been great, mind you. But when the biggest threats seem to be dehydration and quicksand, I just start to wonder why Temeraire and Laurence have to be around at all. I mean, yes, Temeraire’s injury to his throat temporary depriving him of the divine wind was a nice touch—but there is precious little dragon combat, or dragon anything (except complaining) that I just don’t see what makes this a Temeraire book, save for the main characters.
The newest and exciting developments, like the way the Chinese are training serpents to deliver goods across vast distances, are very much underplayed in my opinion. Instead, Novik focuses far too much on the nebulous possibilities of what will happen after this book is over, after Riley returns to England, Granby leaves, Temeraire and Laurence are stuck in Australia with Rankin, etc. And those are all great things to think about—but could we finish the book first?
It’s not all bad. The banter between dragons is excellent; once more, Novik manages to give each dragon such a unique personality while still sharing among themselves certain inhuman outlooks. I just love the slightly hypocritical way Temeraire judges the other dragons (and then often admits, if only to himself, that he harbours similar thoughts). There are three new dragons in this one, and each is interesting (and irksome) in their own way. Moreover, I appreciate that Novik wants to give Laurence and Temeraire a hard time. As much as this is a moral zenith for them, it is obviously a career nadir. It wouldn’t be right, from a pathos point of view, if they rocked up to Australia and suddenly life was grand again. I guess the quicksand is kind of there for a reason.
So I wouldn’t pronounce this a bad book or even a stinker, but it’s definitely near the bottom of my ranking for this series. I think fans like myself will enjoy parts of it well enough. Yet if a newcomer were to pick this up, I’m not sure they would be so enamoured. Tongues of Serpents just seems to lack that magic that makes the series so brilliant. It doesn’t feel Temeraire-y enough, and I could see someone less familiar with the backstory, less able to comprehend the callbacks, shrugging and wondering what all the fuss is about.