Review of TONGUES OF SERPENTS by Naomi Novik (see her website)
Del Rey, July 2010
Convicted of treason for providing Napoleon with the cure to a dragon disease, Laurence (formerly Capt. Laurence) has been banished to the penal colony of Sydney, Australia. With him goes his dragon, Temeraire, along with a feral dragon and a small clutch of eggs. The dragon corps hopes Laurence will create a new clutch, providing vital resources to the ongoing war against Napoleon. And the war has been going badly. Napoleon has made common cause with the anti-slavery nation of Africa, threatening Brasil, premier colony of Britain's ally, Portugal.
In Australia, Laurence and Temeraire find Capt. Bligh scheming to recover his position as Governor-General (he was outsted in a mutiny now known as the Rum Rebellion), an old enemy sent to take command of one of the dragons (once hatched) and a colony where the convicts seem to live only for their daily rum and where the soldiers sent to guard them own everything.
To escape the politics, Laurence and Temeraire resolve to explore the interior, partly in hopes of finding something better than kangaroo to eat. When one of the eggs is stolen, however, they chase the thieves across the continent...only to discover that Britain is not the only power to lay a claim on the continent. Once again, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves torn between following orders and attempting an approach that is fair and logical despite nationalistic interests (and that might even further national goals but which will certainly doom Laurence to a lifetime without pardon).
Author Naomi Novik (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of fantasy by Novik) continues the transition of her Temeraire story from a simple alternate history adventure (Hornblower with dragons) to a deeper look at jingoistic nationalism, the logic of war, and the role of honor in dealing with oneself and with others. Increasingly, Temeraire has become the dominant partner in the relationship (although Laurence continues to rein in the dragon's impetuosity). I suspect that the Rum Rebellion is little known outside of Australian history classes (it's certainly something I'd never read about), and it serves as an interesting backdrop to a story that is more about internal growth than it is about plot.
Given the amount of time spent on the journey across Australia, I would have liked to see more of the continent, what makes it unique and weird (there are a lot of things that make it unique and weird), and on the cultures of the native peoples of the continent. I anticipated that subplot introduced by the apparently dragon-related bunyips would go somewhere but ultimately this was a dead end as was Temeraire's weakness and sore throat. The constant appetite of the hatched dragon, Kulingile, is sort of a running joke without a punch line. And Laurence/Temeraire's growing disillusion with continual warfare seems to peter out in the end without a clear resolution. Perhaps Novik is building up story elements to a follow-on story, but TONGUES OF SERPENTS doesn't really resolve many of these.
Fans of the Temeraire series (like me) will find TONGUES OF SERPENTS as an essential step in the unfolding story. Certainly the character development by both the man and the dragon is important and interesting as is the gradual change in their relationship. TONGUES, however, has a strong feeling of a 'middle book,' with many plot points introduced but not really followed up on or resolved. Fortunately, Novik's writing continues to charm, and the alternate history she creates is strangely compelling.
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