Thursday, January 27, 2011
Review - Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik
Short review: Laurence and Tremeraire are transported to serve Laurence's sentence in Australia to find the colony in rebellion. Exploring the continent uncovers some unexpected surprises, and more rebellion. Serving British officers are almost uniformly stupid.
And sent to Australia
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Full review: Tongues of Serpents, the sixth book in the Tremeraire series, finds Laurence and Tremeraire transported with a shipload of convicts to Australia to serve out Laurence's commuted sentence for treason. It is perhaps a mark of the high quality of this series that this is the first book in the sequence in which the world and the events in it seem contrived. Unfortunately, this still means that this is the weakest and least convincing book in the series thus far.
The first crack in the verisimilitude in the setting appears almost immediately. Once Laurence and Tremeraire arrive in Australia, they discover that Captain Bligh, the Royal Governor of the colony, has been deposed by a band of mutineers (as happened in real history in what is now called the Rum Rebellion). However, Bligh returns to the New South Wales colony with the intention of convincing Laurence and Ganby to use Tremeraire and Iskierka to place him back in power. In New South Wales, Laurence is subjected to insults and attacks due to his notoriety as a traitor. This seems quite strange given two things: first the colony is almost entirely made up of transported convicts and mutineers, which would seem to be a strange group to be overly concerned with Laurence's treachery. Second, while it is somewhat plausible that Laurence would be subject to murderous attempts in England, where there were numerous dragons to prevent Tremeraire from running amuck, it seems absurd that the denizens of New South Wales would risk Tremeraire's wrath, which would almost certainly mean the death of every inhabitant of the colony, by attempting to kill Laurence.
Bligh's constant attempts to get Laurence and Granby to reinstall him in power raises another issue that has been lurking in the background of the setting, but now jumps to the fore. While aviators, tied to their dragons, are considered to be outside normal society, one has to question why. Even if one assumes that the introduction of muskets, tall masted ships, and cannon allow dragonless humans to at least have a fighting chance against dragons, this would not have applied in the preceding centuries. Given that dragons and dragon companioned humans are not a new phenomenon in the setting, one would think that political power in the pre-gunpowder age would correlate closely with having a dragon at your beck and call. Rather than the knight with a large horse being able to install himself as ruler over those around him, it would have been the knight with a dragon at his side. This political sensibility seems to be reflected in the Tremeraire reality's Chinese and Tswana cultures (indicating that Novik at least thought about it a little), but seems to be completely absent from European culture, which seems almost inexplicable. Bligh's constant wheedling attempts to get Laurence to help him regain his position only serves to illustrate how dependent someone like Bligh would be upon the good graces of those with dragons, and how much better off he would be to have his own dragon to depend upon.
Throughout the Tremeraire series, Novik has done an excellent job at showing how the introduction of dragons as military assets into the world shifts the balance of global power. As I have noted before, the fact that the Chinese and Mesoamerican Empires are now forces to be reckoned with, coupled with the introduction of the Africa-spanning Tswana Kingdom in Empire of Ivory (read review) makes it clear that the universe is no longer a Eurocentric one. In Tongues of Serpents we also glean a little bit more knowledge concerning the nascent United States, and it appears that the former British colonies in North America are well-integrated with the Native American tribes, once again, demonstrating a lack of Eurocentrism. The only problem with the series is that despite the fact that they live in a non-Eurocentric world, the British characters in the Tremeraire books obstinately persist in behaving like they do. Despite the fact that they live in a reality in which the fundamental base of power has been radically altered, most of the British characters all persist in behaving as if the sentiments reflected in Rudyard Kipling's poem White Man's Burden were still applicable. Put bluntly, this makes all of these characters seem like complete idiots.
One would think after the pasting the slave traders took from the Tswana in Empire of Ivory and the extreme caution the British took in dealing with China in Throne of Jade (read review) that the British would be more cautious when dealing with alien powers. However, in the climatic scene in Tongues of Serpents we have a collection of bull-headed British commanders (save for the heroic Laurence and Granby) ignoring all the warning signs to launch an ill-considered attack upon a power that they had treated with kid gloves in previous books. This, of course, has predictably bad immediate consequences, but more to the point, even if the attack had gone exactly according to plan, it would have sparked a war with a nation that the British know has dozens of dragons for every one they can field - all while England is already fighting for its life against Napoleon and his new found allies. It seems ludicrous that a nation that had so recently been ravaged by an occupying army and still engaged in an arduous conflict would willingly take on a second major power for any reason. And then, to cap off the stupidity, after it is clearly demonstrated that the immediate consequence of belligerence is defeat, the British regroup, and a further set of authority figures sets about planning a foolishly conceived second attack. The only conclusion one can draw from this behaviour is that the British officers portrayed in Tongues of Serpents are not from the Tremeraire universe at all, but are rather British officers from our universe who have somehow been transferred over into the alternate reality with no briefings on the differences between the worlds, a fact made all the more glaring by the fact that the members of most other nations, such as the Portuguese and American traders who show up, seem to understand the changed nature of the world quite well.
This does not mean that Tongues of Serpents is simply wasted pages. Although there is fairly limited character development for Laurence and Tremeraire, the book introduces some new dragons who almost immediately set about demonstrating their own independence. Tremeraire is confronted with the idea that a dragon who can make his own choices may not simply make choices that Tremeraire would not make, but which make a certain amount of sense (as Iskierka often does), but may make choices that Tremeraire believes to be entirely wrong. This sequence of events also results in the return of Rankin, and his development into a formidable enemy for both Laurence and Tremeraire. Rankin is unlike the implacable Lien who merely wishes to kill Tremeraire, and who they could simply kill in return if they got the chance, but is instead a political enemy who will undoubtedly cause substantial trouble for Laurence via his family connections.
While Tremeraire spends much of the book dealing with the ramifications of dragon independence, Laurence spends his time grappling with the question of who he should give his loyalty to. Unfortunately, all of the various power groups that Laurence could align himself with are quite objectionable. It seems as though Novik intended to create doubt in the reader's mind as to which side of the conflict surrounding New South Wales Laurence would pick. But the real effect is to make one wonder how the British Empire survives at all with such a collection of complete idiots running it, and makes Laurence's final decision in the book an almost foregone conclusion. The only bright bit of character development is the somewhat comic nature of Laurence's clumsy handling of how to deal with Emily Roland's budding sexuality, and the earnest seriousness of the development of the African refugee Demane into a more fully fleshed out character.
In the end, the false internal conflict requiring Laurence to choose sides in the colony's petty political struggles, plus the complete and inexplicable idiocy of almost every British officer drag the book down from the excellent standard set by the previous entries in the series. That said, even with the slight downturn in quality this book displays, the series starts from such a superior starting point that this book remains quite good. It may be that the real problem with this book is that the story feels so small after Victory of Eagles (read review) in which the fate of England as an independent nation hung in the balance. Even the more interesting elements, such as the bunyips that infest the Australian Outback who could have been quite interesting given all the questions posed by their apparent society, seem to be little more than filler material to present an obstacle to the heroes and nothing more. As a result, the limited character development has to carry much of the book, and it simply isn't fully up to the task. I am concerned by the cracking verisimilitude of the setting - whereas the alternate reality seemed to fray a little bit at the edges here and there in previous stories, in this one at times it seems in danger of coming unraveled. The way seems clear for the series to return to the excellent path is took in previous books, but these inconsistencies must be sewn up or the entire series runs the risk of falling apart. I still recommend this book, but for what should be obvious reasons, not as highly as the previous ones in the series.
Previous book in the series: Victory of Eagles
Subsequent book in the series: Crucible of Gold
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