I have dusted off this review – which I first posted back in October 2010, nearly ten years ago – in honour of Naomi Novik’s recent release, A Deadly Education. Her Temeraire series is a real joy – and is one of the few series that I have been seriously tempted to reread…
If you enjoy alternative histories and have a weakness of dragons of any size and shape – then this is a must-read series. Novik revisits the Napoleonic era, with its wars and resulting widespread social dislocation – but also includes into the mix dragons that are bonded to humans from the moment they hatch, and then trained to become part of the French and English fighting machine.
The main protagonists in her series include a rare, highly prized Celestial dragon, called Temeraire, who was snatched from a French ship as an egg. His handler, Laurence, was destined for a distinguished naval career – until he accidentally happened to be present when Temeraire hatched and was chosen by the dragon to be his companion. Together they have experienced a variety of adventures in different surroundings with plenty of fighting – both set-piece battles and skirmishes – and both characters have become ever closer and more aware of each other. In this fifth book, Novik does it again. She gives her fans yet another completely different twist to the ongoing tale – a feat not always successfully achieved by multi-book authors.
It is a bleak time for Temeraire. Banished to the breeding grounds from active military service and constantly missing his human companion, Laurence, he finally begins to count the cost of his decision to help the French dragons. While his captain, Will Laurence, has been condemned to hang for treason. However, their fates pale into insignificance against the desperate conditions that Britain now faces. As Napoleon’s forces breach the Channel defences and invade southern England, it is clear that Napoleon intends to occupy London. So when Temeraire and Laurence once more serve King and Country, it is in the knowledge that their support is only tolerated – and that in certain quarters they are held indirectly responsible for the whole mess, anyhow…
As the story rolls over almost without a break from the previous books, I recommend that you read them all before embarking on this latest volume, which will be a joy if you haven’t yet encountered this very popular series.
While not as high-flown or wordy, Novik does nod in the direction of the more effusive manner of the 18th century style of writing. I am aware that this has hampered the enjoyment of at least one would-be fan, but I personally find the style eminently in keeping with atmosphere Novik has engendered. And as I was brought up on such staples as Pilgrim’s Progress, Jane Eyre and The Children of the New Forest, it wasn’t going to bother me, anyway. However, I give it a mention so that those among you who like your prose pared to the bone will know what to expect.
In amongst the swash-buckling action, Novik has some interesting themes running through her work. Temeraire, as a Celestial dragon, is highly intelligent and capable of fluently speaking a number of languages, reading and writing. However, he is officially regarded as a piece of military equipment by the English authorities, who are much slower than Napoleon or the Chinese to give their dragons any kind of special consideration. Novik interweaves this strand with the anti-slavery arguments of the day – with Temeraire discussing the issue with Wilberforce. Along with Napoleon, both Nelson and Wellington pop up in this book. While this historical time isn’t my speciality, my husband, who’s a military history enthusiast, reckons that Novik has done a particularly good job on Wellington. In my humble opinion, she’s done a particularly good job on this outstanding book in a fine series.