History takes flight in the second book of Naomi Novik’s deliciously addictive series which captures the Napoleonic period perfectly and skilfully layers the timeline with imagination by adding a Dragon Air Force to the battle for England.
Captain William Laurence of the British Air Corps and his dragon, Temeraire, begin their slow voyage to China, fearful that upon landing they will be forced to part by Imperial decree.
Temeraire is a Celestial dragon, the most highly-prized of all draconic breeds; famed for their intelligence, agility and most of all for the Divine Wind – their terrible roar capable of shattering the heavy timbers of war ships, shattering woodland and destroying other dragons mid-flight. Temeraire’s egg was captured and claimed by the British at sea, but he was meant to be the companion of the Emperor Napoleon and not captained by a mere officer in the British Air Corps.
The Chinese have demanded his return and the British cannot refuse them – they cannot afford to provoke the Asian super-power into allying themselves with the French – even if it costs them the most powerful weapon in their arsenal and inflicts the most unimaginable pain upon Laurence and his dragon.
Throne of Jade is the second novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire Series, and while it features many of the same characters, this second instalment is quite different in tone. Temeraire served as an excellent introduction to the world – our world, but with dragons – and this second instalment explores more of Novik’s richly imagined and fantastic alternative history.
With China demanding the return of Temeraire – one of their prized Celestial Dragons – Throne of Jade allows Novik to explore the politics of establishing contact and negotiating with a foreign power. The reader gets some insight into trade agreements and the difficulties of establishing a foothold against the competition, as well as the issues in adapting to a different culture, environment, and language. And it’s clear that Britain isn’t having the easiest time of it, with the Chinese seeming to find us Brits somewhat lacking. All of this adds interesting context to the story as Will and Temeraire set off for China, not knowing what to expect when they arrive.
If the first novel was a voyage of discovery for Will Laurence – former Naval officer and now a Captain in Britain’s Aerial Corps – I felt that Throne of Jade was a voyage of discovery for Temeraire himself. In China, he comes to understand more of his own heritage, he meets his mother as well as others of his own kind, and sees how differently and deferentially dragons are treated in China compared to his own experiences in England. Once again, Temeraire shines through as the standout character for me. I love his rebellious nature and his refusal to accept an idea or scenario simply because it is the status quo. Temeraire is a huge advocate of equality – in all its forms – and I can see him leading a rebellion in future novels, demanding better treatment and equal rights.
Part of what makes this series so wonderful – to me, at least – is the relationship between Will and Temeraire. Throne of Jade puts that relationship to the test, adding tension to the novel, and leaving the reader unsure of what to expect. The Chinese envoy, Yongxing, makes no secret of his displeasure at seeing a Celestial Dragon – usually reserved for the Emperor’s immediate family – paired with a relatively minor (at best) noble and used in Britain’s war with France. Yongxing seeks to insinuate himself between the two, and offers not even thinly veiled insults to Will and the other Brits aboard, causing all sorts of upset amidst political manoeuvring.
The journey to China by sea – made necessary because of the many people involved – is a long one, but even so, I did find it a little strange that so much of the novel is taken up with the voyage, with only a quarter or so dedicated to their arrival and the subsequent events in China. Plenty happens on the voyage, and so it’s not boring in the slightest, and it does allow Novik to explore a little more of the world (which I hope to see more of in later novels) but I’d have liked to have seen more of Novik’s take on China. It also meant that the denouement felt a little rushed in my opinion, which is a shame as I felt that it was a clever ending. I’ll still be reading the third in the series, Black Powder War, as these are minor points that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel.