December 2016
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Black Powder War, Naomi Novik

Temeraire and his crew finally leave China, on an unexpected mission to take three much-desired dragon eggs back to Britain. Along the way, they face starvation, feral dragons, deaths, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s legendary army.

Again, Novik seems to struggle with an escalating plot. Battles happen and at first glance the book may seem action-packed and fast-paced, but the problem is, the reader is never quite sure where the plot is going. It does not begin to build to a conclusion until Temeraire gets involved in the war once again, and I think that’s where the failing in these books lie. There is action, but the book does not compel the reader to discover what happens next – it simply plods along. We’re aware of the mission, but I at least am not driven to discover what happens next. There are few moments of humor to break the tense nature of a war narrative; the reader grows fond of Temeraire, Laurence, Granby, and so on, but the book lacks any sort of human figure that is not either strait-laced and honorable or consumed with vengeance and evil. There is one ambiguous character, but he quickly resolved into one of these two categories.

As for the dragons, I have been hoping that they would seem less like children and more like the intelligent beings they supposedly are. For all Temeraire’s intelligence, he is surprisingly naive about the world, despite Laurence’s frequent attempts to teach him. He reacts like a child in many ways, and though he is a young dragon, the more experienced dragons have never seemed any more mature, except for several of the Chinese dragons. With this in mind, I find Temeraire’s ideas for the betterment of dragon-kind almost silly. Undoubtedly they are not treated as well as they could be, but Novik does not portray them on the same level as her human characters, and how could dragons be truly independent if they are so reliant on their captains anyway? Think of Levitas, who remained loyal to Rankin until the end, despite Rankin’s poor treatment of him; he’d never have gone away from his captain even if he could. It is, apparently, against dragon nature, so how could they be as independent as Temeraire wishes? Naturally, the British society Novik portrays could do with a great deal of improvement, but I find that she tells a lot more about the dragons’ intelligence than she shows. Doesn’t happen in this book.

As with the others, I find this a cozy read; it feels comforting, what with the relationships between dragons and captains and between the humans. Virtually everyone is friendly, as long as they are on Laurence’s side. As a contrast to this, the book is depressing, as even the one “victory” our heroes can claim is marred with grief. There are barely any light moments, which makes the stolid narrative hard to bear. Perhaps this is the way war goes, but it isn’t quite the way to write an enthralling fantasy novel. It also ends on a cliffhanger with basically only negative resolution to the little plot Novik has going. I think these stories have great potential, but they could use some improving; more comic relief, more character development, steadier plot. Perhaps we’ll see that in Empire of Ivory. I’m sure it doesn’t help that I’m not fascinated by military history, but I’ve read plenty of books with battles in them, and this one just doesn’t dwell on the personalities involved to make me really feel the risks.

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