Sunday, January 23, 2011

Review - Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Short review: Lawrence and Tremeraire must go to China and reconcile with an alien culture.

They go to China
And get taken down a peg
Earn an enemy

Full review: The conflict foreshadowed in His Majesty's Dragon (read review) between the British and Chinese over Lawrence's pairing with Tremeraire becomes the main plot in Throne of Jade. Apparently incensed that a common British officer could be matched with one of the exalted "celestial" breed of dragons (normally reserved for the members of the Chinese Emperor's immediate family), a delegation led by the Chinese prince Yongxing demands that Tremeraire be returned to China, characterizing Laurence's seizure of the egg from the French in His Majesty's Dragon as "piracy among barbarians".

It is a feature of Novik's alternate world that the introduction of dragons has altered the political balance of power among nations. While the central conflict of the books is the struggle between Britain and her allies against Napoleon's France, adding dragons has substantially increased the weight of nations such as China in world affairs. Consequently, the British cannot (as they probably would have in reality) brush off the Chinese delegation, and the threat of China entering the war on the side of the French is of grave concern to Britain. Interestingly, the influence of dragons does not seem to have saved the Americas or India from being subjected to European domination and colonization, which seems to be something of a contradiction in the structure of the alternate reality Novik presents us with. India, for example, is dominated by Britain and the East India Company in the Tremeraire universe, just as it was in our real history.

Given Laurence's affection for Tremeraire, and Tremeraire's own absolute refusal to consider leaving him, the British are on tenterhooks, unable to satisfy the Chinese. In order to avoid a charge of treason, Lawrence agrees to go to China with Tremeraire to meet with the Emperor, who will then decide what is to be done with them. The overland route being barred by Napoleon's forces, Tremeraire must be carried by sea aboard one of the massive dragon transport ships employed by the British, along with the entire Chinese delegation. Once on board ship, the story begins to pick up steam as a variety of cultural conflicts are exposed. Chinese disdain for those they consider barbarians creates friction, as does Yongxing's continuous (and unsubtle) attempts to pressure Tremeraire to part with Laurence. The interservice rivalry between the sailors and aviators adds still more tension to the mix. For the journey, Laurence is saddled with a China expert to assist him, and his advice often rankles at Laurence as well, adding still more delicious conflict to the mix.

It is during this lengthy sea voyage (which takes up the bulk of the book) and after the arrival in China that Novik truly sets her book apart from the typical fantasy by fleshing out both Tremeraire's character, but also by confounding the reader's expectations regarding dragons and their treatment. In His Majesty's Dragon, by means of describing their use, care, and crew, Novik cleverly established dragons in the mind of the reader as more or less intelligent sailing ships that happened to fly, or perhaps, really big smart flying horses. As such, housing them in the equivalent of stables, and treating them as animals to be fed, watered, and trained felt right to the reader. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the alternate reality would continue in this vein and focus on thrilling aerial battles between fire-breathing and acid-spitting behemoths. However, in Throne of Jade, Novik calls into question the entire European attitude towards dragons that was laid out in the previous book. One begins to wonder why a sapient species is held as beasts of burden, and housed and fed as animals. It begins to seem almost monstrous that dragons or dragon eggs would be traded among nations to improve breeding stock, or as diplomatic gifts. Novik draws some parallels with the slave trade in African slaves, but with a light enough touch as to be able to make her point without being offensive.

(As a side note, one scene in China would seem to indicate that there are vast untapped reservoirs of dragon power available. In a dragon starved Europe, one would think this would prove to be a substantial opportunity for a nation who figured out how to entice such potential to rally to their cause. Unfortunately, none of the characters in the novel seem to see this potential, and spend their time focused on wooing the humans, rather than the dragons).

I had a few minor difficulties with the book. One is that despite dragon transports being a regular feature of the world, apparently no one in the Tremeraire universe has thought to use them as floating platforms to launch dragon attacks. Essentially, despite having the ships that mirror them in characteristics, no one seems to consider the idea of using them as the draconic equivalent of aircraft carriers. Another is that in the resolution of the story, Laurence's status is altered so substantially that one would think he would be one of the most important British subjects alive, and that he would be accorded substantial status (and possibly virtual legal immunity) in his home country as a result. Although I had to cheat a little bit by looking at the cover blurbs of later books in the series, this does not appear to be the case. I would consider it a substantial plot hole if some of the events that take place later in the series do so without causing significant diplomatic complications for the British.

As good as His Majesty's Dragon was, Throne of Jade is better. Despite having very little in the way of action, most of the book being taken up with diplomatic intrigue, the story makes Tremeraire specifically, and dragons in general, much more fully realized characters, and in doing so, sets up the conflict that appears to be in line to become one of the central themes of the series: The social and legal status of dragons. While many series suffer a "sophomore slump" in the second book, Throne of Jade is a noteworthy exception, and highly recommended.

Previous book in the series: His Majesty's Dragon
Subsequent book in the series: Black Powder War

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

Locus Winners for Best First Novel

2007 Locus Award Nominees

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