Book Review

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik’s stunning series of novels follow the adventures of Cpt Laurence and his dragon Temeraire as they travel from the shores of Britain to China and Africa.

Before Captain Will Laurence can prepare his crew for the slow voyage home from China, new orders arrive for him and his dragon, Temeraire: they must fly home immediately, stopping only in Istanbul to collect three priceless dragon eggs, purchased by the British government from the Ottoman Empire.

But the cross-continental journey is fraught with danger; not only will they have to scale mountains and traverse vast hostile deserts, but a Machiavellian herald precedes them, spreading political menace in her wake. Holding Temeraire responsible for the death of her princely companion, Lien has absconded from China consumed by vengeance. If she can, she will destroy everything and everyone Temeraire loves.

I’m really enjoying Novik’s Temeraire series, set during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons adding a new dimension to the conflict.  Black Powder War picks up in the aftermath of Throne of Jade with Will and Temeraire about to depart from China to make the long voyage home.  Beset by problems delaying their journey by sea, Will receives new orders – Will, Temeraire, and crew must take the overland route via Istanbul in order to pick up three dragon eggs, a much needed bounty in the wars as Britain have fewer dragons to call upon than Napoleon. 

Black Powder War is split into roughly three equal parts, with the first section capturing their journey from China to Istanbul.  I have to admit that I found this first section a little slow.  Things happen on their journey – they must negotiate mountains and deserts and all of the dangers associated with hostile terrain.  For me, this section lacked the excitement of seeing Temeraire in battle, or having Will and crew caught up some in political intrigue.  That said, this first section does set the scene nicely for what follows, and there was a nice surprise along the way that becomes significant later in the novel.

Their arrival in Istanbul marks a turning point in the novel, and I enjoyed it much more from this point onwards.  The pace picks up, and what should be a simple transfer of the dragon eggs – already paid for by the British government – becomes increasing complicated as Will and crew are housed in comfortable quarters which they aren’t allowed to leave.  Their situation is made more difficult by the news that the British ambassador died in a hunting accident shortly before their arrival.  I love the political intrigue in this section.  There’s a mystery to be solved and dragon eggs to acquire by means fair or foul and it held the level of excitement that I’ve come to expect based upon the series so far.  Novik also brings the intricacies of the Turkish court to life brilliantly, remaining true to history and the nature of the Ottoman Empire whilst also imagining the impacts that dragons might have upon the nation.

Having seen the way in which dragons are treated in China, Temeraire is now determined to fight for the rights of dragons who are bought and traded as objects and forced to endanger themselves in warfare, yet have no say in anything.  Temeraire, as a sentient being, wants dragons to be treated equally, with all the rights that humans have.  This causes something of a divide between Will and Temeraire – Will isn’t against him, but he advises caution, while Temeraire is keen to act.  I like this thread in the novels, which was introduced in Throne of Jade, and I’m really excited to see where it goes. Temeraire is already causing disruption by sharing his ideas with the dragons he meets on his journey, and it’s clear that the road he’s chosen will be both long and difficult. But then, anything worth fighting for is often hard to come by.

I’m really excited about the next instalment, Empire of Ivory, the blurb of which promises new lands, new excitement, and undoubtedly new dangers.

The Temeraire Series:

  1. Temeraire
  2. Throne of Jade
  3. Black Powder War
  4. Empire of Ivory
  5. Victory of Eagles
  6. Tongues of Serpents
  7. Crucible of Gold
  8. Blood of Tyrants
  9. League of Dragons

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