November Book Notes: Dragons, Apes, and Amen

The Temeraire Series by Naomi Novik

Dom was very into this series when it first came out. I did try to read the first book, at his prompting, but the timing was bad and I couldn’t get into it. Not because of any fault of the book itself, so much as that I was just off an intense Aubrey Maturin kick and the subject matter is similar but the style very different. Naomi Novik is a talented writer, but the first pages of her first novel didn’t really stand up to comparison with Patrick O’Brien’s masterful prose. They felt flat and I didn’t even read more than two pages in. I knew it was an unfair comparison, but there you have it, I couldn’t get O’Brien out of my head so I decided not to read Novik at that time.

But recently I was casting about for something to read and I noticed that one of the later Temeraire books was on the Kindle. I’d quite enjoyed Novik’s recent stand-alone fantasy novel, Uprooted, which had nothing at all to do with her Temeraire books, and I thought, well she can write one book that I like, so maybe I should give her dragon books another chance. And I’m so very glad that I did. What an enjoyable month of reading it has been.

The series is a sort of cross between an alt-history Aubrey-Maturin and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels. What if there were intelligent, talking dragons during the Napoleonic Wars? Novik’s dragons are not telepathic like the dragons of Pern. They learn human languages while in their eggs and some (perhaps most?) dragons can also learn additional languages after they hatch. Like the dragons of Pern, they form lifelong attachments to particular riders, and like McCaffrey’s dragons, they come in various sizes and colors with different attributes. But Novik’s dragons have many more breeds than McCaffrey’s and not all of them breathe fire.

At first the dragons just seem like clever alternative history workaround to getting an air force into the Napoleonic period. A sort of steampunk gimmick without the steam. But as the books go on and our heroes travel to other continents and see how other human societies interact with dragons the picture becomes much more complicated. Novik begins to draw a very strong parallel between the British treatment of dragons and their treatment of slaves that begins in the first book when we learn that Laurence’s father is an active abolitionist working with William Wilberforce to abolish slavery. It becomes clear that Novik’s dragons are more than just a technology replacement. They are sentient and capable of forming relationships not only with individual people, but more broadly with whole societies and civilizations. Indeed, they seem to shape the course of civilization in many places in fascinating ways.

My reviews below of individual novels are going to be full of spoilers. I’ll try to stay away from major plot points, but if you don’t want to know what happens next, don’t read any further.

In the first novel, His Majesty’s Dragon , which seems to be called Temeraire in British editions, William Laurence is a captain in His Majesty’s Navy who accidentally attaches himself to a dragon when he captures a French ship in battle that has a very special egg on board. This attachment spells social ruin for Laurence since the members of the dragon corps are disdained by society even as they are absolutely necessary to the war effort. They are outcastes and now Lawrence’s very sense of honor and of duty to king and country has thrust him into their company for life, cutting him off from his family, his friends, and any hope of the life he had planned for himself. And from his honor, too. Men in the dragon corps cannot defend their honor in duels because of their attachment to their dragons. Even though he is back in England, he is now in a real sense an exile, even more than he was as a captain in the Royal Navy.

In the second novel, Throne of Jade, Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, travel to China, Temeraire’s country of origin. The Chinese are appalled that their priceless egg, intended for the emperor Napoleon himself, has gone astray. Evidently Temeraire is a rare breed of dragon, an imperial, and only members of the Imperial family are allowed to be companions. The Chinese, who are horrified that he is being used in battle, demand that he be returned and the English, who cannot afford to make them enemies, comply. But Temeraire, of course, belongs to no one but himself and has his own ideas.

I really liked the contrast between the English approach to cohabiting with dragons and the Chinese approach. Of course both are rooted in the mythologies of the two cultures. The Chinese revere dragons, they are beloved and benevolent gods, even if not always safe. In English legends, on the other hand, dragons are fearsome monsters. Think of the knights who slay dragons in the legends of King Arthur and of course the story of England’s patron saint, George the dragon slayer. What Laurence and Temeraire see of Chinese human-dragon relations makes the parallel to slavery even more clear. English dragons are slaves, forced to fight and to breed at the will of their masters, unable to own property in their own right, or to partake in civil society. Now Laurence is doubly outcast, he can never go back to his old ways of thinking about dragons as merely beasts of burden.

In Black Powder War Laurence and Temeraire journey overland via the Silk Road from China to Turkey where they have been promised valuable dragon eggs to help strengthen the English forces. Then they travel across Europe battling with Napoleon’s army in Prussia. This is my least favorite book of the series. It drags quite a bit and the war in Prussia is grim and bleak as Napoleon continues his brutal sweep across Europe. Laurence is desperate to get back to England and while I see the necessity of this installment, so am I.

In Empire of Ivory Laurence and Temeraire travel to Africa seeking for a cure for the influenza epidemic that is killing off the English dragons. I did like this first encounter with the African dragons, who are very unlike both European and Chinese dragons. Africans believe that the dragons are the reincarnation of the tribe’s most important ancestors. The dragons take a very different role in African society. And in Novik’s alternate universe Africa, led by the dragons, has a force for unification that makes it strong enough to rise up against slavery, to push back against the Europeans. This is a very interesting development of the theme of emancipation and abolition of slavery.

In Victory of Eagles we return to England just in time to witness Napoleon’s invasion of Britain. Yes, that’s right. Invasion. There was so much to love about this novel, not least of which is the continuing development of the conflict between Lawrence’s duty and his sense of honor. Laurence is a hero who over and over again is thrust into doing what he does not want to do and who is punished for doing what is right.

Tongues of Serpents transports Laurence and Temeraire to Australia. Of course the British government just want to wash their hands of him and his troublesome dragon. But things couldn’t be so easy, adventures must ensue. An egg is stolen, political intrigues abound, personalities conflict. The thing I loved best about this novel was meeting the bunyips. Because in a world where dragons are real, why not bunyips, too?

Crucible of Gold brings us to South America, where they meet the Inca and find themselves embroiled in more political intrigue. South American dragons do not bond to individuals so much as to tribes or clans. There is a very different social dynamic and things seem to have been exacerbated by a dramatic die-off of people, perhaps from small px and other diseases brought by the Europeans? And there are Spanish and Portuguese and French colonizers to contend with as well. Napoleon has a very long shadow and is waging a global war.

Finally in the eighth novel, Blood of Tyrants, the penultimate book and most recently released, Laurence and Temeraire have a series of adventures which almost feel like three novelas strung together. First ,they are shipwrecked off the coast of Japan and Laurence forgets who he is. Then, they go to China and are sent to eradicate a bunch of rebels. Finally, they go to Russia for the final confrontation with Napoleon. I really liked the first third of the novel the best. Even though amnesia is a terrible cliche, but I confess it’s one I rather like as a reader and am very forgiving of in a book that like. In Laurence’s case it creates an interesting contrast as his memories are reset to his pre-Temeraire days, he’s lost the best part of a decade’s growth and insights and to see that stripped away reminds the reader of just how far he has come. And yes, I liked the dip into Japan and wished we could have lingered there longer.

The final book in the series, League of Dragons, is due to come out next year. I suppose I should be grateful I dove into the series when it was so near to completion. I do really so much prefer to read books one after another rather than to have years to forget what has happened, because I am so not likely to re-read these days. But a wait of a few months I hope won’t be too bad. I am very curious as to how Novik is going to wrap up the series with just one more book. It feels like there’s so much more world to explore. I definitely hope we get to North America. I’d love to see India. But mostly I want things in England to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer by Leah Libresco

This fabulous book deserves it’s own post and I want to review it at much greater length. With lots of pull quotes, because I highlighted extensively as I read. In short, Leah is a convert to Catholicism from atheism. In this volume she writes about the experience of learning how to pray when she had no former frame of reference for how to do that. What I love most about the book is how Leah explains everything through metaphor and literary reference. Her brain thinks very much like mine in some regards, not the least of which is the use of a quirky or unexpected metaphor not just to illustrate her points but to help herself arrive at new points.

Walking with the Great Apes by Sy Montgomery

This book about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, the three proteges of Louis Leakey who at his prompting each embarked on a life-long relationship with a species of great ape: Goodall with the chimpanzees, Fossey with the gorillas, and Galdikas with orangutans. Although this book at times drifted over the line and became a little over-personal— I did not need to know about Dian Fossey’s sexual affairs and pornograpy stash, for example— and in the final chapter into the overly-mystical, it was generally a nice introduction to the life and work of these three scientists. But it’s not one I’d give to the kids to read for the above stated reasons.

I picked it up because Anthony is currently fascinated with gorillas and great apes. I don’t always limit myself to looking for children’s books when we dive into a topic because sometimes well-written adult books are more detailed and informative than children’s books. And indeed this book had many passages that had I found the time would have been worthwhile to read to the children. I intended to do so, but time got away from me and the task of editing on the fly is an energy drain, so I just returned the book to the library when it came due.

Bella did pick it up and read a bit. Fortunately she was turned off fairly early in the book before the more problematic passages. She didn’t like Dian Fossey taking a dog from its owner who she thought was mistreating it. Well, Bella has a good nose for when something doesn’t smell quite right. So I’m glad she didn’t keep reading. And I learned a lesson about pre-reading the books for her. Now Bella’s reading a book by Jane Goodall that’s a much better fit and liking it immensely.

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