Naomi Novik’s stunning series of novels follow the adventures of Captain William Laurence and his fighting dragon Temeraire as they travel from the shores of Britain to China and Africa.
Laurence and Temeraire made a daring journey across vast and inhospitable continents to bring home a rare Turkish dragon from the treacherous Ottoman Empire.
Kazilik dragons are firebreathers, and Britain is in greater need of protection than ever, for while Laurence and Temeraire were away, an epidemic struck British shores and is killing off her greatest defence – her dragon air force is slowly dying.
The dreadful truth must be kept from Napoleon at all costs. Allied with the white Chinese dragon, Lien, he would not hesitate to take advantage of Britain’s weakness and launch a devasting invasion.
Hope lies with the only remaining healthy dragon – Temeraire cannot stay at home but must once again venture into the unknown to help his friends and seek out a cure in darkest Africa.
Empire of Ivory is the fourth instalment in Novik’s fantastical take on the Napoleonic Wars, which incorporates dragons to add an aerial aspect to that conflict. It picks up in the immediate aftermath of Black Powder War and sees Captain Will Laurence and dragon Temeraire finally return home after their visit to China and the long journey back overland. Rather than the pleasurable experience of reuniting with old friends, they find the aerial units grounded by a mysterious illness that affects the dragons, a situation that the French wouldn’t hesitate to use to their advantage if they became aware of it. With a potential cure to be found in Africa, Will and Temeraire set out once more, the lives of their friends dependent on their success.
Their journey is, of course, anything other than straightforward, but it does give a glimpse of Africa at the time as we get to see much more of the continent and, of course, its own dragons. This is one of my favourite elements of the series – seeing different countries and cultures and seeing how Novik adapts the beliefs of each nation to give them a different approach to the treatment of dragons. Their mission is aided by some new characters who I hope we’ll see make an appearance in later novels, and they fall foul of some of the tribes in Africa in their search for a cure to the illness affecting the dragons, making it a longer affair than expected, with more action and intrigue than a hunt for a cure might suggest.
Throughout the series, Novik has touched upon the politics of the time, but I felt that Empire of Ivory does more to highlight Britain’s role in the slave trade than the previous instalments. It’s a shameful element of our past, and wonderful to see Will on the side of the abolitionists, becoming something of a figurehead for the movement due to his increasing influence with the powers that be. Their trip to Africa allows Novik to explore the actions of those involved in the slave trade, as well as the conditions in which those to be sold as slaves were kept. It’s adds an extra edge to the novel, as Will – unwillingly – comes into contact with those involved in the trade and sets about upsetting their activities.
It’s difficult not to see the parallel in Temeraire’s own mission of obtaining equal rights for dragons, demanding a wage and rights such as a dragon’s human handler would enjoy. It’s a theme that’s been mentioned since the first novel, and one that does not seem to have progressed much in the four novels that I’ve read. And it seems like a stretch to think that it could come to pass. If Britain can’t see the worth of other humans, them treating the dragons as equals seems like a step too far, no matter how intelligent they’ve proven themselves to be. Temeraire is persistent, however, and it will be interesting to see how that storyline develops.
I think that the series to date has been interesting, but I have to admit that my interest is waning a little, and I didn’t enjoy this instalment as much as I have the other in the series. That said, the novel ends on such a cliffhanger that I will have to read book five – Victory of Eagles – just to see what happens next.