Book Review

Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik’s stunning series of novels follow the global adventures of Captain William Laurence and his fighting dragon Temeraire as they are thrown together to fight for Britain during the turbulent time of the Napoleonic Wars.

Laurence and Temeraire have been banished from the country they’ve fought so hard to protect – and the friends they have made in the British Aerial Corps.

Found guilty of treason, man and dragon have been deported to Australia to start a new life and many new adventures.

Tongues of Serpents is the sixth instalment in Naomi Novik’s fantastical series which takes the Napoleonic Wars and adds an element of aerial combat through the use of dragons on both sides of that conflict.  You really do need to read the full series in order to get the most from these novels.  Past events are alluded to but not fully explained, and so for this novel you might gather that Laurence and Temeraire have been banished to Australia for an act of treason, but it’s assumed that you’re aware of the context and the rationale isn’t fully explained here.  Additionally, this novel sees the return of a character from the first novel in the series, Temeraire, and you’ll need to have read that novel to understand the antagonism between Laurence, Temeraire, and the frankly detestable Captain Rankin whom Laurence, unfortunately, feels the need to play nicely with.

One of my favourite aspects of this series is seeing how Novik takes the world of approximately 300 years ago and adapts it to incorporate dragons.  She remains broadly true to history where possible, but it’s fascinating to travel this version of the world and to see how different places have been adapted to her vision. The Australian setting of this novel is a little unusual in that it appears to be broadly the same.  The British Empire is trying to establish a foothold despite everything else that is going on in the world and convicted felons have been shipped over by the boat load in order to establish a colony and undertake hard labour.  This includes Laurence and Temeraire due to their activities in previous novels, although they’re still treated with more respect than most.  With three books left to go in the series, I believe that the only areas left to explore are the Americas, and Novik deftly introduces this idea in the novel, setting us up for the next instalment. 

While I’m enjoying the series overall, I have to admit that this novel feels a little hard going at times.  Earlier chapters are taken up with a long and arduous journey across hostile terrain, albeit with the added benefit of being able to fly across the country rather than travelling overland. There are moments of difficulty – the availability (or lack thereof) of water, the fierce weather, and the wonderfully devious and increasingly aggressive bunyips (a creature from Aboriginal myth) all cause problems, but I never felt any real sense of danger or tension for the group.  These sections unfortunately seem to be dominated by men bickering, dragons bickering, or men and dragons bickering.  The final chapters do pick up the pace as elements of the plot are revealed, however, and it was worth it to get to that stage.

I like Laurence for the most part, but I have to admit that I’m mainly here for the dragons!  He’s a good and honest man – a little traditional at the outset, perhaps, but he does at least adapt and learn as he goes along.  That said, having been branded a traitor, I wanted to see a little more reaction from him – even if it’s just him kicking off in private.  He’s strangely accepting of his banishment, and I wanted some anger, some disappointment, some something other than the stoic acceptance of his situation.  After everything, he is loyal to a fault.  It’s commendable, but I wanted some pride to show itself and some acknowledgment of how poorly he has been treated.  It may yet come – I expect he’ll be dragged back into the war at some point due to Temeraire’s abilities if not his own prowess in battle – but I can’t help but wonder if the overwhelming British stiff upper lip will still win out. 

I’ve read six of the nine books in the series now, and I’m far enough in that I want to see how things turn out.  I have the feeling that Tongues of Serpents is partly intended to set up events for the next instalment with the idea of Brazil (amongst other places) being introduced here, and so I’m hoping that the seventh book, Crucible of Gold picks up the pace again.

The Temeraire series, with links to my reviews:

  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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