Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review - Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

Short review: Napoleon invades England, Laurence is a traitor, and Tremeraire gets some of what he wanted.

Napoleon invades
But the English still resist
With guerrilla war

Full review: Unlike the previous two books, which more or less picked up immediately after the preceding one left off, Victory of Eagles skips over intervening events and kicks off with Laurence having already been convicted of treason for his actions in Empire of Ivory (read review) and Tremeraire having been sent to the breeding grounds, his good behaviour the price of postponing Laurence's death sentence. Against this personal drama, Napoleon's long dreaded invasion of the British Isles finally arrives and throws the entire nation into disarray.

Of course, this marks a major departure from history, in which Napoleon did not actually invade Britain at all. As has become a mark of the high quality of the Tremeraire series, the military strategies employed by the various combatants are in constant flux as each side copies the other, and then leaps ahead to exploit weaknesses in the operations of the other, and Napoleon's invasion force is no exception. Having already introduced Nelson into the storyline in His Majesty's Dragon (read review), the battles for control of Britain itself now bring Wellesley to the fore, and he proves to be a heroic character, but only from a particular point of view. To a certain extent, Laurence's part in the war to liberate England seems to draw upon the Boer War as presented in Breaker Morant, with Laurence taking the place of the title character of that movie, handed vague unwritten orders to engage in actions to disrupt French operations behind their lines. This gives the war a brutal character that had been lacking before, drawing the populace directly into the conflict in a way that they had not before and ramping up the tension.

But the invasion and subsequent battles are really only the background for the real stories of the novel: Laurence coming to terms with his new status as a traitor, Tremeraire emerging into his own as an independent minded free individual, and both Laurence and Tremeraire finally fully understanding what the actions taken in Empire of Ivory have cost Laurence. To tell these stories, Novik begins to shift viewpoint regularly between Laurence and Tremeraire, which both makes Tremraire's viewpoint much more real to the reader, and interferes with the story in several places. In more than one instance, the same events are told from one viewpoint, and then told again from the other. This method can work, but more often than not it ends up being slightly tedious, especially if the characters are well-drawn enough that the reader can accurately tell ahead of time how a particular character will view a situation. Laurence, having been the primary focal character of the previous four books, is pretty predictable in most of the double recounted situations, and as a result his side of these particular scenes feels a little redundant.

On the other hand, it is critical to the story to get inside Laurence's head for much of it. Being a man of honor, Laurence is, of course, resigned to being condemned as a traitor and Tremeraire, though he does not understand why Laurence would accept being hanged, understands that his captain thinks this is an important point to stand upon. But Laurence does not, for much of the novel, fully grasp that being a traitor and being allowed to live means a life of almost total ostracism. Laurence also was seemingly unprepared for the responsibility he would feel for every death resulting from Napoleon's invasion. And when he does realize these things, he falls into despair and accepts an assignment from Wellesley (who demonstrates both his cunning and his ruthlessness by making the offer) that Laurence considers to be truly reprehensible. Laurence rationalizes this by telling himself that he, as a condemned man, has nothing to lose. Interestingly, it is Tharkay, who places little value on refinements like personal honor, who pushes Laurence into realizing that he is only honorless if he allows himself to be. Once again, Novik's deft touch allows her to make a sharp comment upon the social structure of Napoleonic era Britain.

Tremeraire, for his part, slowly comes to understand that having saved Laurence from death, he is unable to save him from the other baleful consequences heaped upon him, including the loss of his rank, social standing, and fortune. The fall in Laurence's personal fortunes is mirrored by the rise in Tremeraire's as the dragon puts his belief in draconic independence into action by rallying aid to the British cause from a wholly unexpected source. As a result of his new found initiative, Tremeraire finds himself handed authority, and finds his demands for pay for dragons taken seriously, by Wellesley at least. Tremerarie also finds that things don't turn out quite as he expected. Facing difficulties dealing with Iskierka, his most ardent convert, as well as his other dragon followers, Tremeraire soon discovers that freedom, while much preferable to servitude, is not quite as fun or easy as he had thought it would be. Iskierka's almost piratical attitude towards obtaining prizes to increase her plunder, and resulting greater wealth and independence, irks Tremeraire. By focusing heavily on Tremeraire as a central viewpoint character, and introducing a collection of mostly independent dragons to the story, Novik is able to more fully flesh out the dragons as independent characters in their own right, which adds even more depth to the story. The only weakness on this score is that the French dragons in general remain colorless beasts, while Tremeraire's nemesis Lien, though menacing, never seems to be more than a comic book style villain. By developing the individual character of the British dragons, Novik makes the underdeveloped French dragons in the book seem less real.

The developed characters of Laurence and Tremeraire, both noble and honorable in their own right, but regarded with suspicious or scorn by British society, are contrasted with Nelson and Wellesley, exalted by those around them. Nelson, especially, makes an interesting counterpoint to Laurence. In His Majesty's Dragon, while Nelson was lauded for his victory at Trafalgar, Laurence was regaled as almost his equal in heroism for his actions at Dover. However, by the time Victory of Eagles rolls around, Nelson is still a national hero, while Laurence is a despised traitor. The contrast in their fortunes is especially interesting when one evaluates the personal character of the men: Nelson is in favor of slavery, Laurence is an abolitionist. Nelson cheats on his wife and brings her into disrepute, Laurence is sensitive to the reputation of the woman who spurned him to marry another. Nelson was in favor of infecting the dragons of the world with an incurable disease, seeing them as nothing more than beasts of war, Laurence threw away everything to prevent this. And so on. Wellesley, for his part, though able and willing to make compromises necessary to victory, is presented as something of a scoundrel, willing to engage in pious hypocrisy to keep his own hands clean while ordering others to engage in what all around him to be dishonorable acts. One has to wonder if Novik is making something of a comment upon the nature of men who are needed to win wars.

As I have noted before, the Tremeraire series is remarkably thoughtful for a series that is usually described in flippant terms like "Hornblower meets Dungeons & Dragons", focusing on the issue of freedom, how humans treat one another, and how humans treat another sapient species. Interweaving large scale battles with some skullduggery, coupled with a healthy dose of character development and deftly added social commentary, Novik has managed to make "Napoleonic Wars with Dragons" into a series that is both exciting and thought provoking at the same time. The only real question at this point is having seemingly backed herself into a corner, can she figure out a way to keep the series on the superior trajectory it has thus far been upon, and follow up this superb novel with still more to come.

Previous book in the series: Empire of Ivory
Subsequent book in the series: Tongues of Serpents

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