Monday, January 24, 2011

Review - Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

Short review: Tremeraire must fly from China to Turkey to pick up valuables for Britain, and then gets caught up in the conflict on the continent as tensions between France and Prussia erupt into open war. Tremeraire doesn't just bring his crew back from China, but also a cunning and deadly new enemy.

Fly across Asia
Into a war in Prussia
With Lien at their heels

Full review: The third book in the Tremeraire series, Black Powder War picks up immediately where Throne of Jade (read review) left off. Having resolved the diplomatic crisis of having a British officer in possession of an extraordinarily valuable Celestial dragon and averted a Chinese civil war, Laurence and Tremeraire are cooling their heels waiting for favorable winds to allow their massive dragon transport ship to sail them back home to England. Because an uneventful voyage home after a successful mission wouldn't make for a very good story, one can guess that they don't get the opportunity to wait for the winds to change. Instead, a mysterious courier named Tharkay arrives with an urgent set of orders directing Laurence to proceed to Turkey with all possible speed to collect some valuable dragon eggs the Turks have agreed to sell to Britain.

Why such orders would be sent to Laurence, halfway around the world, and certainly further away from Turkey than for example, British forces in Gibraltar, is a mystery. But orders must be obeyed, and Laurence makes arrangements to travel via the arduous overland route. Lacking other options, Laurence must hire Tharkay as his guide despite his misgivings. Tharkay makes an interesting contrast to Laurence as a character. Whereas Laurence is a member of a respectable family, an officer and a gentleman, who feels a strong sense of duty towards his country, Tharkay is the child of a mixed-union of a British father and Nepalese mother, who has a decidedly mercenary mindset, and who is less than enamoured of his treatment by British society which regards him (as a mixed-race child) with disdain. The introduction of Tharkay allows Novik to call into question the organization of British human society, just as Tremeraire's exposure to the Chinese called into question the European treatment of dragons.

The journey across Asia manages to add still more substance to Tremeraire's growing ire over the prevailing attitudes towards dragons, triggered both by Tremeraire's continuing contact with Tharkay and an encounter with a band of wild dragons. It turns out that feral dragons are not quite so uncivilized as humans had assumed, although the band of mountain dragons proves to be quite difficult to deal with despite their amiable nature. The journey also causes Laurence to question Tharkay's reliability, and Novik skillfully manages to ensure that Tharkay's actions are just cryptic enough that one is never sure whether Laurence's suspicions about him are reasonable and well-founded, or are merely born out of his ingrained prejudices.

When the group finally reaches Turkey, they find that the Turks are (with some justification) less than happy to see them. They also discover that Lien, formerly paired with the deceased Chinese Prince Yongxing, has preceded them, and is plotting against them, seeking revenge against Tremeraire. After much intrigue, they escape first to Austria, and then to Prussia, where they land in the middle of the war referenced in the book's title. The Prussians, regarded as the military elite of the continent, have gone to war with Napoleon, and despite Tremeraire's precious (and secret) cargo, he and his crew are pressed into service to replace promised British aid that has not arrived. Anyone familiar with the history of the time period will be unsurprised to find that the Prussians are hidebound and tied to the military teachings of Frederick the Great, which now extend to rigid adherence to Frederick's drills and formations for dragons as well as men. In the alternate reality of the Tremeraire universe, just as in reality, this doctrinaire approach to warfare proves disastrous as Napoleon is able to use their predictability to his advantage.

One of the more interesting things Novik does in the Tremeraire books is to come up with ways for Napoleon's famous victories to be recreated in sensible ways despite the addition of dragons. In Black Powder War, Napoleon seizes upon Lien's assistance to reorganize his entire dragon corps, and the way his entire army operates. In many ways, it seems as though Napoleon in this book is behaving in a manner similar to the German high command in the beginning of World War II, seizing upon methods to increase the mobility of his troops, their ability to coordinate with one another, and to strike at heretofore unexploited weaknesses. For their part, the Prussian commanders play the part of Weygand perfectly, always one step behind the quickly moving French forces. Napoleon's campaign, as Novik describes it, is brilliant. I am, however, of two minds about the innovations that change the face of warfare in the book. On the one hand, it seems perfectly natural that Napoleon would be the one who would seize upon unorthodox ways of managing his army, especially given the assistance of Lien (it is an indication of how unorthodox Napoleon is that he openly elevates her to his officer corps and gives her command). On the other hand, dragons are not a "new" technology in the Tremeraire universe, so it seems almost implausible that no one in Europe would have thought of any of these ideas before, or that the French could have made such a radical transformation in their own military structure so rapidly with so few apparent miscues. I consider it an indicator of the strong nature of the series that neither Napoleon, nor his enemies remain static, as Laurence and the Prussians end up with some unexpected allies, and engaged in some desperate, unorthodox strategies of their own.

Throughout the book, Tremeraire grows as a character, calling into question many of the ways humans treat dragons which are taken for granted. He is especially concerned over the purpose of the Turkish trip, appalled, as one might expect, by the idea that dragon eggs (and therefore dragons) may be bought and sold like property. He also takes the opportunity to preach his new found belief in dragon rights to any dragons he happens to come across, which as one might expect, causes additional troubles for Laurence and his crew as they must not only try to explain matters to Tremeraire in a way that he will accept and understand, but must also smooth over the ruffled feathers of foreign dragon captains whose dragon have been exposed to the seemingly subversive idea that dragons should be treated as free creatures, and not as glorified beasts of burden. Tremeraire, for his part, is shocked by both the human hostility to his ideas, and the seeming indifference of many of the dragons he encounters. The afterward to this book, as in the previous ones, is a small snippet of a fictitious scholarly writing on the subject of dragons, but whereas the previous two books were by naturalists engaged in the study of dragons, this is by a somewhat less than informed member of the clergy, who, after making some clumsy attempts at a scientific analysis of draconic intelligence, ends up using scriptural arguments to discount the possibility that dragons are more than mere beasts. It seems to me to be something of a commentary on modern clergy sticking their nose into scientific matters and making pronouncements on matters about which they know next to nothing as well as those who used the Bible to support the repugnant practice of black slavery. This afterword suggests, quite strongly, that Tremeraire is headed for trouble in his effort to secure rights for his kind.

In the end, Black Powder War is as good as the preceding two books. In many series it is common for the quality of the books to tail off slowly as the series progresses, but Novik appears to have avoided that problem thus far. The only possible problem that may be looming on the horizon for Novik is that it seems as though she will soon have to leave behind the more or less strong parallel between the actual history of the period and her alternate history. In reality, by the time the events of Black Powder War took place, the British had destroyed the French fleet at Trafalgar, making invasion of the British Isles a practical impossibility. However, with his large (and growing) superiority in dragons, this is not true in the Tremeraire reality. It will be interesting to see how Novik handles the alternate history that, it seems, must diverge substantially further from actual events in the near future. No matter how she handles these potential difficulties, the fact remains that this is an excellent book, that somehow manages to retain strong verisimilitude despite the wild card element of intelligent dragons. For a series of books about dragons fighting the Napoleonic Wars, the series is remarkably thoughtful without sacrificing exciting action and drama.

Previous book in the series reviewed: Throne of Jade.
Subsequent book in the series reviewed: Empire of Ivory.

2006 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear
2008 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

2007 Locus Award Nominees

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  1. First of all thanks for the list of good things to eat! I think I might make homemade pancakes all the time now that I know it's the syrup that does you in hahah!!

    And second of all, your reviews are so through and so exciting to read!!