Ossus Library Index Fantasy Index

BLACK POWDER WAR

A novel by Naomi Novik (2006, Del Rey)
Temeraire: In the Service of the King, book 3

Traveling to Turkey to acquire two dragon eggs for the Crown, Temeraire and Lawrence encounter stiff resistance, war, and their Chinese nemesis.

 

 

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Read February 28th to March 15th, 2013, as part of a multi-book hardcover  
    The author shows us another different side to dragons in this novel, as Temeraire leaves China and travels across Asia to Turkey, then to Persia, where dragons are property as much as in England. But it is Napoleon who shows Temeraire the path to his true calling- as the dragon who might bring an end to slavery in England, by demonstrating how humans can overcome their fear. First, he needs to get to Turkey and its political betrayals, and the Prussian war with the French. I realize that Asia is a big place, but I found there was a little too much dullness in the travel between locations.

Spoiler review:

I still like these novels, even if the main character is a stiff Englishman who has a sense of honor that might get him killed. At one point, he is unnoticed on a hill, hiding from a French soldier whom he slowly realizes is Napoleon, and he refuses to even attempt to commit murder, even though he knows the French general plans to kill them all, if he can.

Aside from that, I like Lawrence, and the way his sense of honor pervades his company of men. He is strict, but he follows his own rules, too, just like he expects the men to do, and he passes this sense of justice on to his dragon.

This, and the visit to China, make Temeraire anxious to return to England to start talking about dragons' rights with his friends. It's a long journey, and Temeraire gets to see different reactions from different regions. The overland trip, as opposed to the one made by sea in the last book, is prompted by a fire on the ship they were to use to get back to England.

They plan to wait out the repairs, but a note comes to Lawrence that he is supposed to pick up two dragon eggs from the royal palace in Turkey, and that prompts a voyage over the great desert and the mountains. The trip would have been quite boring if not for the injection of potential deception by their guide, a man who is part Asian, part other (we never quite get his full pedigree, except that he doesn't fit in the white man's world, nor the Chinese world). He is used to doing things his own way, and so he slips away sometimes, where Lawrence thinks he is betraying them. Once, in the desert, he disappears and they are set upon by bandits. But Tharkay always has a good story, actually, his story is just good enough to keep him from getting in trouble. Even by the end of the book, where he has proven himself faithful, we are never sure if he was simply taking advantage of the situations, or genuinely trying to help them. The point is, Tharkay doesn't do things the "proper English" way, and Lawrence, who is a military officer, deplores his casual behavior, but also can't really do without him, as he needs a proper guide to get to Istanbul.

Along the way, they encounter feral dragons, and it is quite interesting and funny to see Temeraire interact with them, assuming they have some sort of manners, and finding out that they don't! He learns their language quickly enough, which strengthens his case that dragons should be able to manage their own affairs, rather than being simply beasts for humans to ride to war.

I found it a little strange (and had trouble at first) that Lien, the white Celestial dragon that Temeraire bested in Throne of Jade, would cross the mountains with a Frenchman; revenge hardly seems her style from what we know of her (more her former master's, but I guess that rubs of on her the way Lawrence's sense of duty and justice rubs off on Temeraire). Also, she would have had to leave a little earlier than Temeraire, and I wonder that she didn't need the supplies that he did while crossing the desert, or at least that they didn't hear of the requisition when they were searching for supplies themselves.

In Istanbul, the ferals are chased away, but Lawrence and Temeraire and his group are waylaid, not really permitted to do anything as they wait to visit the Sultan, a task that takes forever. For the Sultan is now under the sway of Lien, who apparently knows of the English purchase of the dragon eggs, and had taken the English money and reneged on the deal, probably killing the English ambassador in the process.

By the end, after a long wait, Lawrence learns the truth, and stages a raid into the Sultan's wives' quarters to seize the English eggs (losing one in the process), as they escape to Prussia. Meanwhile, it seems that Lien is just waiting to be a foil for Temeraire, because at that point, she too abandons the Sultan and makes her way to the French army, where she becomes a strategist to Napoleon himself.

Despite their errand to bring the egg back to England, Lawrence and Temeraire are brought into the Prussian army, where they watch the inept handling of the war against the French, losing town after town as they consistently underestimate Napoleon's infantry and dragon wings.

They finally make their way to a small holdout on the edge of the sea, where the British navy is waiting, but cannot stage a rescue due to the large number of French troops and dragons in between. All the plans they make are nothing compared to the strategies of Lien, who sets up an effective siege. Yet Tharkay returns with the ferals, and together, they ferry all the troops and families out of the Prussian fort and toward the waiting navy ships, all under the cover of darkness and a drugged French lookout dragon.

The one dragon egg that they rescued turned out to be a fire-breathing dragon, of which England has none, and she is a very feisty beast! It was quite funny to watch them deal with her as she wanted to go to war before she could even fly.

The last section was actually the most exciting, but I still enjoyed most of what was told, in the different parts of the adventure. The bulk of the story, I think, was to show Temeraire the different ways that dragons are treated in different parts of the world. His mission, ever since touring China, is to bring the idea of free life for dragons back to England, and he wastes no time telling any dragon he meets, whether they are the ferals, the Turkish dragons or the Prussian ones, about what they could have. Usually, the dragons are curious, but most of the time their supervisors come and ask Lawrence to have him stop talking to the other dragons!

It is a real wake-up call to Temeraire to learn that dragon rights must wait until after the war, because people have other things on their minds, and are more likely to dismiss dragons as sentient beings over their concerns about being invaded by Napoleon, for example. But as Lawrence well knows, that would really just be an excuse, as the English people are afraid of dragons. While there are mean humans (like Napoleon), a single evil dragon could cause so much harm in such a short time, that humans have every right to fear them. However, to hold them in thrall because of that is unjust, especially if they handled their own justice and decided their own affairs.

I do wonder, though, if they would all be as naive as Temeraire. I found his questions to Lawrence amusing, as he sought to figure out the rules of human fairness- of course there are no rules that even the most decent human wouldn't break. One such example is when Temeraire compares the ferals' stealing of the Sultan's cows with Lawrence's stealing of the Sultan's dragon eggs. The fact that the Sultan stole England's gold is beside the point. Lawrence has always taught his dragon to go through the proper channels, and yet here he is, taking what is owed his government when he doesn't like what the proper channels have to say -even if they are corrupt.

Napoleon himself gave Temeraire his greatest weapon to argue for free dragons, however, when he put hundreds, even thousands of his troops on dragonback to transport them. While humans naturally fear dragons, the people in China and now France are able to quell that fear and turn it into respect.

So the adventure was a little slow, but still gave us plenty to think about. There are still unanswered questions, such as why other dragons couldn't go get the Turkish eggs, why the British navy couldn't send the twenty dragons promised to the Prussians, which might have led directly to their defeat (never mind the unsound tactics). The next adventure beckons, especially as Britain seems to be the only nation left in Europe to withstand Napoleon. I look forward to reading about it.

 
   

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