THRONE OF JADEA novel by Naomi Novik
(2006, Del Rey)
Temeraire, book 2
When the Chinese government insists on repatriating Temeraire, Laurence reluctantly takes the dragon by boat to see the Emperor.
-- First reading (hardcover)
Not nearly as interesting as the first book in this series, most of it is spent in transit, dealing with the same anxieties over and over again. Before boarding in England, and after debarking in China, things were much more interesting.Spoiler review:
It's tough to actually spoil anything about this book, because nothing much happens. It seems unlikely that Temeraire will be forced to stay in China, so the only question is how that will come about. Unfortunately, the answer comes in almost the last chapter, and it is wrapped up so quickly that it almost feels like a cheat. Fortunately, most of the time spent in China is enjoyable, so by that point, it almost makes sense.
The book opens with Laurence in a rage as the Chinese Emperor's brother has come demanding the Celestial Dragon back from the English, having become very interested in what happened to their gift to Napoleon after the events of His Majesty's Dragon. The Chinese are apparently outraged that some lowly commoner is paired with such a mighty dragon. We learn later that there are only eight Celestials, which explains why they want him back, but also begs the question of why they let him go in the first place.
Since the story is only ever told from Laurence's point of view, we get his doubts about his government, which seems to be appeasing the Chinese, from sending Temeraire to China without any real argument, to taking no action against them when trade ships are seized. As would be expected under the circumstances, he also has a great dislike for the Chinese, who mostly keep to themselves on the long voyage from England to China. The voyage takes seven months, as the huge dragon-ship transports them farther than a dragon could possibly fly, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean.
The politics are interesting, if I do find them rather tame. Of course, only so much hostility can be bred on a small ship without everyone killing the others. So some dinners go disastrous, while others are celebrated successes. The party for crossing the equator impresses the Chinese, who in turn stage a Chinese New Year celebration unlike anything the British have ever seen.
Before they get far, the French attack them at night, and while Temeraire sinks one of their ships with his Divine Wind, everybody is horrified at the result (being sailors themselves), and Temeraire is seriously injured by a French weapon. Their friends from Dover appear to save them from the French dragons, begging the question of why Temeraire couldn't have flown that distance and met up with the ship later, rather than depleting ship resources for that entire time.
The one main discussion that comes out of this book, I think, is the relationship of dragons to humans. They are probably as intelligent as humans, yet it is humans who tell them where to go and what to do, not to mention what and how often to eat -they are treated like pets or zoo animals in that respect. Laurence is embarrassed to put in to a port in Africa where they witness slave traders shipping slaves across the ocean. It makes Temeraire grow philosophical, wondering what would happen if he decided he didn't want to fight in the aerial corps anymore. Would be be able to buy some land and live where he wanted? Laurence knows the answer, that the British population fears dragons, and would not permit a dragon to roam freely among them.
When they get to China, it's clear that Temeraire's questions will be fully answered, as the comparison between the two countries is startling in its contrast. In China, dragons are served not only raw meat like cattle and sheep, but cooked delicacies and spiced meals, which Temeraire greatly enjoys. They roam free without any riders often enough, and even carry their own currency with which to purchase food and jewels. Temeraire loves it when Laurence reads to him, but in China, dragons can read and even write on their own, to the point of going to school. It's a very interesting concept, which puts dragons in the same class as humans, where they can even sink into poverty.
It is interesting that Temeraire gets even more disillusioned with humans when they are forced to kill a huge sea serpent that attacks the ship close to China. He tries to communicate with it, but it is more interested in the spoils the Chinese cooks are throwing overboard, and the humans are intent on killing it, making it even less able to communicate, if it ever was. Temeraire's point was that the humans never even tried.
Meanwhile, there are a few attacks on Laurence's life, as the Chinese are always trying to pry the dragon away from his master. In England, they told the dragon lies, but when he was brought on the boat, a servant tried twice to kill Laurence. And in China, a huge gang of barbarians attacks the English camp, after the guards mysteriously disappear. Although well written and enjoyable, the scenario was almost comical, in that Laurence and his men picked such a defensible position, and were permitted to keep enough bullets to fuel their guns to keep more than a hundred attackers at bay all night long, killing probably three quarters of their number, only losing one of their men. In our own timeline, the Chinese know how to wage war; I'm sure even barbarians would be able to overrun that position at some point. Only one of the men seemed to have any martial arts training, and he is the one who killed one of Laurence's men.
It turns out that Yongxing, the Emperor's brother, was planning some sort of rebellion to kill his brother, and present one of the young princes (his sire?) as heir to the throne, with a Celestial Dragon to validate the boy, of whom he would become regent. Yongxing has a Celestial dragon, Lien, but she is a rare albino variety, considered to be bad luck. She turns out to be bad luck indeed, to him, as when Laurence is attacked once more at a festival theatre, Temeraire tries to kill Yongxing. Lien and he start to duel, but when they knock over the theatre stage, parts of it stab Yongxing, killing him instantly. That at least absolves Temeraire of direct murder, even though that was his intention from the start.
Temeraire gets to meet his mother, Qian, as well as his twin brother, from whom he was separated (sent to France) in order to show that there was only one heir to the Emperor's throne. And the reason he didn't come to Laurence's rescue the night of the attack? He lost track of time while mating with Mei, an Imperial dragon he met at his mother's residence. Oops.
The British envoy Hammond was very annoying to Laurence throughout the voyage, as all he seemed to want was to open trade, thus trying to avoid any diplomatic incident and keeping open the option of returning Temeraire to the Chinese. He understands many of the customs, however, and once Yongxing's plot is exposed, he successfully petitions for Laurence to be adopted by the Emperor, which means he can keep his dragon. And although Temeraire finds China very splendid, he decides to return home to England, where Napoleon's forces have broken through various lines, and have much of Europe on the run.
Most of the characters in this novel didn't change much, if at all, from beginning to the end of the book. Laurence, though, has changed, his opinion of the Chinese evolved against his will as he saw their culture first-hand. At the end of the book, he reluctantly agrees with Temeraire that Britons must change their treatment of dragons, but he also knows what kind of uphill battle that will be, especially in the middle of a war that Britain might be close to losing.
Slow, interspersed with action events that seemed almost isolated, this book could have used some sprucing up. I hope the next book in the series is a little more interesting.
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