Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review - Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

Short review: All of England's dragons are sick, and the slave trade blows up in the faces of the British.

British arrogance
Seems to be unjustified
And they pay the price

Full review: The first book in the series to diverge almost completely from the events of the actual Napoleonic Wars, Empire of Ivory begins with Laurence and Tremeraire entering England laden with Prussian refugees only to find that the mystery of the missing British dragons in Black Powder War (read review) is due to circumstances more dire than anyone could have imagined. It turns out that the promised British dragons never arrived to assist the Prussians in their struggle against Napoleon because almost every dragon on the Isles has fallen sick with a debilitating illness that appears to have no cure, and seems to lead inevitably to death.

Given the heavy reliance that the military organizations in the Tremeraire universe place upon the use of dragons as weapons of war, this widespread illness is both a cause for great alarm, and a heavily guarded state secret. Laurence's return to the country with Tremeraire, the crew of feral dragons led by Arkady, and the hatchling fire breather Iskierka, is regarded by his superiors as a minor miracle. After impressing on the reader the dire circumstances England is in with her shores patrolled by a mere handful of dragons, Novik has serendipity strike when it is discovered that Tremeraire, quite by accident had been infected with the disease and somehow cured on his journey to China in Throne of Jade (read review). This sets into motion the main plot of the book: a journey to the Cape colony with a wing of sick dragons to hunt for the cure.

The story, for the most part, merely serves as a vehicle to advance the themes of equality that run through the books. Almost immediately upon embarking on their voyage, Laurence and the transport's captain Riley begin a bitter feud over the question of slavery. Despite the fact that Riley had been one of Laurence's proteges when he was serving in the navy, their political differences on the issue now tear them apart. As usual in the Tremeraire books, whenever the issue of human slavery crops up, the shabby European treatment of dragons also rears its head. And, of course, where you have dragons, you have female officers, which creates yet more tension between the aviators and the seamen exacerbating the conflict between Laurence and Riley. The only real problem with the book in these areas is that it is quite heavy handed in its treatment of the issues, hammering the reader over the head more or less needlessly to demonstrate that, for example, slavery and racism are wrong.

Once the expedition arrives at the Cape, the treatment of Africans by the British, already an issue in the story, becomes an even bigger issue, as the racist attitudes of the British are exceeded by the even more racist attitudes of the Dutch colonists they conquered. Eventually, the action moves to the interior of the unexplored African continent, where Laurence and his compatriots make some rather unsettling discoveries about the inhabitants and their relationship to their dragons and find the promised Empire of Ivory. This part of the story seemed to a certain degree reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan books, or possibly H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. The action turns, and we are treated to the Tremeraire universe equivalent to the Battle of Isandlwana, although in this case it turns out to not merely be a tactical victory for the natives, but a strategic one too, shattering the European sense of superiority.

And this raises the crucial problem I have with the book, namely where would Europeans get this sense of racial or cultural superiority. This sensibility was part and parcel of the British make-up in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the motto "make the world England" carried to all corners of the globe. But this attitude was rooted in the fact that the British (and Europeans in general) could impose their will on non-Europeans throughout the world. But in the Tremeraire universe, we know for a fact that China is a force to be reckoned with, and we are told that the Aztecs and presumably the Incas have also proved to be impenetrable nuts. Unable to do more than establish a handful of trading colonies on the coast of Africa, and with the British Empire reduced to, apparently, the colonies in India and the former colonies in North America, one is left to wonder how Europeans come by this apparent attitude. Given that Novik seems to have given a fair amount of thought to how the existence of dragons would shift the geopolitical balance of power in her fictional world, it is quite disappointing that she seems to have neglected to consider how these changes would alter the cultural attitudes of those who live in that universe.

The last part of the story brings the question of European treatment of dragons to the forefront. Having more or less resolved the human slavery question, Novik is free to bring the dragon issue out of its shadow. Threatened by invasion by Napoleon, the British elect to try a solution that seems parallel to Churchill's proposed plan to use chemical weapons to defend the United Kingdom against Nazi invasion. And by means of this plan, the British prove themselves to be utterly callous in their attitudes towards dragon welfare, prompting Tremeraire to drive Laurence to examine his own conscience on this issue. It is both unsurprising and depressing that the British, having been jolted out of their complacent superiority regarding African slavery, still regard dragons as merely large beasts of burden to be dealt with as cattle, an attitude in stark contrast to the attitudes held by Chinese and the Africans. The course Laurence and Tremeraire set upon in response to this seems to be the element that sets up the storyline for the remaining books in the series, which increasingly appears not to merely be "the Napoleonic Wars with dragons", but a fully realized alternate reality dealing with how humans will share their world with another, coequal intelligent species.

This book marks an important turning point in Novik's series. In the first three books events more or less paralleled the actual Napoleonic Wars: His Majesty's Dragon (read review) had Trafalgar, Throne of Jade had Austerlitz, and Black Powder War had Jena and Friedland. In Empire of Ivory events move entirely outside of anything that would relate to actual history, and in fact, are directly counter to actual history. At this point, Novik is moving into uncharted territory, and it appears that there may be no going back. This is the point where alternate history novels prove their mettle, either turning very bad very quickly, or emerging into the limelight to shine. In Empire of Ivory Novik seems to have made a good, although somewhat heavy handed, start on her own version of events. In the end, this is yet another excellent installment in the series that seems now determined to ply an independent course further away from history into new and potentially much more interesting areas.

Previous book in the series: Black Powder War.
Subsequent book in the series: Victory of Eagles.

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