In Naomi Novik’s marvelous alternative history Temeraire series, the British armies fight the French warmonger Napoleon Bonaparte—and both armies possess an air force of dragons. It’s a concept that merges everything that’s good about fantasy, combining an imaginative, meticulously detailed historical setting with dragons, swords, battleships, and gunpowder. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Temeraire series is one of my favorite ongoing works of fantasy.
Unfortunately, after five wonderful novels, the sixth installment, Tongues of Serpents, proved lackluster and in want of forward movement. In fact, I would almost propose simply skipping it, as it adds nothing to the series. Fortunately, the seventh volume—Crucible of Gold, which came out last summer—brings a change in pace and a small step back in the right direction. Crucible of Gold once again thrusts readers into a nineteenth century filled with war, political intrigue, and seafaring. However, it continues to exhibit the general lack of direction that plagued Tongues of Serpents.
Spoilers for the previous novels in the Temeraire series ahead.
South American adventure
After Temeraire and his captain, William Laurence, were convicted of treason and departed to the Australian penitentiary colony, they have slowly started to get used to life again—that is, until an old friend appears and offers them a general pardon in exchange for their diplomatic assistance. Napoleon has struck a bargain with the Tswana dragons and shipped them to Brazil to retrieve their people, who were enslaved by the Portuguese. It is important for the continued campaign against the French invaders that the African dragons are stopped. Thus, Temeraire and Laurence, joined by old friends, embark once more on an adventure—an adventure that, this time, takes them to South America.
Their adventure, however, doesn’t go as planned. Soon enough, it becomes evident that this novel is by no means about the war against France, nor about the battles between African and Portuguese dragons. Instead, Crucible of Gold is driven by political intrigue and themes of slavery and inequality—themes that have been addressed throughout all of Novik’s books but which are amplified in this latest installment.
A matter of equality
In the Temeraire series, we have become acquainted with many different cultures and their varying relationships between man and dragon, each of them skillfully and intricately crafted. The British treat their dragons as nothing more than weapons, tools, and property. In contrast, the Chinese and their dragons live together in equality. Then there are the Tswana dragons who are worshiped as the reptilian reincarnations of deceased tribal elders. Now we meet the Incan Empire in Crucible of Gold, a culture in which dragons are the masters and humans are their property. These dragons and their people add a whole new dynamic to the themes already introduced in Novik’s previous novels and create new problems for the British dragons and their crews to deal with. Suddenly, they are facing other dragons trying to steal their crew members, and soon the British dragons must learn to perceive their captains differently.
Then there is the question of the African dragons reclaiming their people. Through the eyes of the book’s characters, we face the ancient question: is it morally okay for one man to possess another? These are the questions that shift Crucible of Gold’s focus away from action and towards human (and dragon) relationships, and even a hint of romance here and there. However, while these themes sound plenty compelling, the execution felt mechanical rather than emotionally engaging. Some characters, like Iskierka, do get some much-needed moments to shine and develop, but, in general, the events in Crucible of Gold lack any impact on the overall direction of the characters and story.
Why should you read this book?
In the end, this new direction for the Temeraire series doesn’t work for me. I long for the story to return to where I believe its strengths lie: the war against Napoleon and the battles waged both at sea and in the air, in which dragons and gunpowder are artfully combined. If you’ve come this far in the series, you’ll probably want to read Crucible of Gold as well, if only for the character development and the amazing South American world building. And of course, Novik’s prose and dialogue, which feels at the same time modern and befitting the early nineteenth century, remains astounding as always. I just hope that Blood of Tyrants, which comes out in August 2013, will bring us back to Europe and the true action of the war.