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Issue #129 - May 2006

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Temeraire vs Napoleon

By Cheryl Morgan

This review should probably carry a spoiler warning. Obviously Temeraire fans in the US will be devouring the books as they come out. But those of you in the UK, who wonít be getting Book 2 for months yet, and those of you in the US who canít quite stomach a cute dragon book every month, may not have read Throne of Jade yet. If you havenít, stop reading this now, because there will be spoilers.

OK, on with the story. And in something of a rush, because Novik doesnít waste any time. By which I mean that Black Powder War opens up mere days after Throne of Jade finishes. Laurence gets to witness the funeral of the disgraced Prince Yongxing, and discovers that his dragon, Lien, has teamed up with the devious French ambassador, De Guignes. Obviously no good will come of this, but the truth of that is a way off yet. First we get flung into the action.

Having a fire on board the Allegiance is a great way to get the book started, but to us hardened novel readers it is obvious that this is an Authorial Ploy. Laurence and Temeraire are going to need that ship any day now, and so it proves. Dispatches arrive from London ordering them to Istanbul post-haste, where they are to collect some dragon eggs that the Sultan has sold to Britain. With no ship, they are forced to travel overland. You might think that with a dragon this would be easy, but as their native guide, Mr. Tharkay, points out, there are deserts to be crossed. He recommends buying thirty camels.

"We are going by air," Laurence said, confused. "Temeraire will carry us," he added, wondering if Tharkay had perhaps misunderstood.

"As far as Dunhuang," Tharkay said equably. "Then we will need to buy camels. A single camel can carry enough water for a day, for a dragon of his size; and then of course he can eat the camel."

The book is divided roughly into three parts. The first details the overland trip to Istanbul, the most significant detail of which is an encounter between Temeraire and a small group of feral Turkish dragons. Temeraire is delighted to discover that they have their own dragon language and tell each other dragon folk tales around the campfire at night. Apparently his attempts to interest Maximus and Lily in books by reading to them from Principia Mathematica have not been too successful.

Sharp readers amongst you will note that this will further inflame Temeraireís interest in Dragonsí Liberation. And I suspect that Novik is being very subtle during the chapters in Istanbul where she shows the women of the harem being held in a captivity even more rigid and confining than that forced upon dragons in Britain. Laurence is beginning to despair about what will happen when they finally get home, and tries to explain about getting laws through Parliament. He notes that the first thing Temeraire needs to do is learn to speak English in a refined and cultured accent.

"That is a very strange way of speaking," Temeraire said dubiously, after he had tried it, repeating over the phrase a few times. "It seems very peculiar to me that it should make any difference how one says the words, and it must be a great deal of trouble to learn how to say them allover again. Can one hire a translator to say things properly?"

"Yes; they are called lawyers," Tharkay said, and laughed softly to himself.

Novik makes quite a lot of this sub-plot along the way. It is clearly something she is developing in preparation for when our heroes finally get home. Equally Mr. Tharkay, who is half-English, half-Tibetan, is a part of the equation. Heís actually very much an American hero: the bold and independent frontiersman who is mistrusted because of his fondness for the natives. Real Americans, on the other hand, get short shrift from the bold lads of the Royal Air Corps.

"Oh! Maybe we are taking back the American colonies?" Ferris offered; Riggs opined that it was more likely the colonials had invaded Nova Scotia, ungrateful rebellious sodsÖ

Enough of sub-plots, however; what about the book? Well, the reason that Novik had to get Temeraire out of China quickly was that time was against her. Furthermore, she needed him to be approaching Britain from the east, not from the south. The quickest way home from Turkey is across the border into the Austrian Empire and thence north across Prussia. And that puts Temeraire and Laurence in just the right place and time to fight at Jena. The reason Temeraireís crew is speculating about the American colonies above is that the Corps has promised a wing of dragons to the Prussian army, and they have not turned up. Temeraire gets drafted in their place.

Naturally the Prussian dragons donít think much of their British ally. Proper dragons do not have their own Chinese chef who not only cooks their food, but flavors it with horrible foreign spices. Proper dragons eat their food raw. They also spend hours on end practicing flying formations devised by Frederick the Great who, as everyone knows, has defined precisely how war should be fought. Of course Temeraire is not to be so disciplined, and adds a few flourishes of his own to the maneuvers. If I have understood Novik correctly, he invents the Immelmann Turn.

Napoleon is even less rigid in his attitudes to war than Temeraire. Remember I said that Lien had teamed up with the French? She might think fighting beneath her, but she isnít averse to teaching Chinese battle tactics to the Emperor. Novik has clearly been thinking about the use of dragons in land warfare. And she has read up on the Napoleonic Wars. It is entirely appropriate that Murat should be the commander to lead fast dragon-back raids into enemy territory. The Grande Armée can now move much faster than the real one did, and to far more deadly effect.

Personally I was rather looking forward to Temeraire and Laurence meeting a fanatically brave, red-haired, French dragon commander. Somehow I think dragons would suit Ney. But maybe that encounter is yet to come. Thereís only one trick that Novik missed, and I have taken the liberty of writing the missing scene for her. This encounter takes place just as Temeraire is about to airlift the King and Queen of Prussia to safety in the east.

King Frederick looked sadly at his commanders and said something in German.

"Heís asking if anything can be done to halt the French advance," Temeraire translated for Laurence.

The generals looked guiltily at each other in silence for a while. Then Marshall Blücher coughed and let forth a stream of invective from which Laurence could only glean the words "Bonaparte" and "der Teufel."

"Heís complaining about the speed of the French armies ó the way Murat uses dragons to get his men far beyond our lines and seize vital strongpoints," explained Temeraire. "Heís done that German thing where they run two words together to make a new one. It is a good word, I think. Literally translated it means Ďlightning warí"

Did I enjoy this book? The heck I did! Much of that is, as usual, due to the incredibly cute dragon, but the historical stuff was a lot of fun too. Novik seems to have overcome her reluctance to use major historical figures in the narrative. Even Bonaparte himself makes a cameo appearance. There were times reading Black Powder War that it seemed very like Kevinís reports of Harry Turtledove novels. This is not just a girly book, folks. Give it at try.

And the really good news is that it is plainly obvious that there are more books to come. Hopefully Novik is hard at work on them as I type. Having got two books in two months, I donít want to have to wait too long for the next one.

Black Powder War - Naomi Novik - Del Rey - mass market paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee