Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Review - Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

Short review: The British crown decides to stop wasting a valuable asset and reinstates Lawrence before sending him to South America where the price of European arrogance has come due.

Sail the Pacific
Offend the Incan ruler
Piss off Portugal

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: Crucible of Gold is the seventh book in Naomi Novik's Tremeraire series, following upon the somewhat disappointing Tongues of Serpents. Captain Lawrence, Tremeraire, Granby, Iskierka, Demane, and Kulingale all return to action and leave Australia behind for more adventures, called upon by the British government to aid its Portuguese allies in South America in a trek that results in a variety of twists and turns. Unfortunately, this installment of the series continues the foundering that afflicted the previous book, and although the story is diverting, and at times interesting, one gets the impression that Novik is just filling pages at this point without any real idea of where the story is going. Despite all of the motion that takes place in the course of the book, one feels as though the plot has been running the Red Queen's race, ending up in more or less the same place that it had started the book in.

The book opens with Lawrence and Tremeraire cooling their heels in Australia, living in exile following the commutation of Lawrence's death sentence in Victory of Eagles. At the outset of the book Hammond arrives, interrupting Tremeraire's ongoing construction of his pavilion, bearing a letter reinstating Lawrence as a captain in the British air corps and directing him to take Iskierka and Kulingale to Brazil and aid the Portuguese there. It seems that Napoleon had allied himself with the Tswana, last seen in Empire of Ivory, who are quite understandably a little upset that the Portuguese have made a habit of taking the inhabitants of Africa and transporting them to South America as slaves. Whether Napoleon cares about the concerns of his allies or not is unclear, but he has opportunistically used his transport ships to move several of the Tswana ancestor dragons to Brazil in order to knock these allies of the British on their heels.

This development brings to the fore two of the themes that Novik has inserted into the series: the issue of slavery, and the alteration to the balance of power engendered by the presence of dragons in the world. In actual history, the idea that Napoleon would ally himself with the African nations and transport and army to Brazil in an effort to discomfit the Portuguese would have been laughable. Not only would Napoleon have never given the inhabitants of the Dark Continent a second thought, but moving an army of natives to attack Rio de Janeiro would have been a futile and counterproductive gesture, probably only serving to provide the Portuguese with additional forced laborers for their plantations. But with the changed balance of power this threat is very real. And by having the Tswana target the Portuguese, Novik homes in on the lead slaving nation in actual history - at one point slaves in Portugal outnumbered free people - and highlights the growing sense that Britain, a nation that condones slavery and allies itself with slaveholding nations, may not be the right side to root for even though it is the side that the protagonist of the novels serves.

As if to punctuate this point, Lawrence, Tremeraire, and the rest of the expeditionary force set out for Brazil aboard the Allegiance, commanded by the pro-slavery Captain Riley. The voyage is cut short due to the drunken misadventures of some of the ship's crew, and in a sequence of symbolic significance, the dragon transport and the slave-holding Captain Riley sink into the sea. This symbolic shedding of the pro-slavery character in the story is somewhat tarnished by the stereotypical class prejudiced means by which that plot development is presented. The sinking of the Allegiance exposes just how vulnerable dragons are when transported this way (and exactly how much disregard for their welfare the European powers must have to load them into ships) and puts into motion the remainder of the plot, as Lawrence leads the dragon wing on a desperate flight across the open ocean to try to find a place to land.

On their last legs (or, more accurately, wings), the dragons run afoul of the French and find themselves stranded on a desert island where the dragon crews and the remnant of the sailors saved from the Allegiance must eke out an existence heavily dependent upon the fishing skills of the dragons. It is at this point that the stupidity seen in Tongues of Dragons returns as the shiftless navy men try to rough up Lawrence and the other dragon captains in an effort to somehow make the dragons do what they want them to. Given that the dragons are exceedingly protective of their captains (at times to the point of suffocating them with affection), threatening the object of these men seems like an exceedingly hazardous thing to do. One might imagine that for a brief period of time one could get a captain's dragon to go along with your desires via blackmail, but you would still have a very touchy multi-ton winged creature with huge fangs, claws, and possibly acidic or fire breath who was angry with you. This seems like a suboptimal situation to choose to place oneself in. This is yet another example of the British characters in the book behaving as if they exist in a world in which they are unfamiliar with dragons. Everything in the world has changed by the introduction of intelligent engines of destruction, and yet time and again, the British inhabitants of the world behave as if they are living in a world that is exactly like our own late eighteenth/early nineteenth century.

Eventually, serendipity raises its head and Lawrence is able to lead the dragons and a portion of the remaining crewmen to the South American mainland where they stumble into the Incan Empire. Or rather they stumble into a deserted fishing village sitting in the middle of deserted countryside. It seems that even though the presence of dragons has changed the balance of power in the world, what has not changed is the effect that bringing Old World diseases to the New World has on the native inhabitants. So what Lawrence and Tremeraire find is a land depopulated of humans by disease and a nation of dragons bereft of their cherished pets. It seems that while the Europeans treat dragons as intelligent livestock, the Chinese treat dragons as fellow members of society, the Tswana treat dragons as their tribal ancestor gods, the relationship between the Incans and their dragons is not how humans treat the dragons living among them, but rather how dragons treat the humans living among them.

As usual, the British blunder about without any real understanding of the native culture of the land they are invading and manage to offend the local dragons. They are saved by Iskierka's fighting skills, and end up in Cusco before the Sapa Inca where they discover that the nation is in crisis due to the plague induced depopulation of the land. The inhabitants are organized into allyu, each presided over by a dragon who is responsible for their care and protection, but to whom they are bound to service much like serfs. This leads to some discussion concerning the nature of freedom, slavery, and the duties of citizenship, once again exploring the question of the slave culture that exists in Europe, and the status of dragons in Britain. The Sapa Inca is a woman, the male heir having died before British arrived in Cusco, which when coupled with the revelation of Iskierka's rather unique talents results in Hammond attempting to arrange a political marriage between the Sapa Inca and Granby, a prospect that Granby dreads but which Iskierka is wholly in favor of as it will make her captain a prince, and elevate him to equal status with Lawrence.

After much maneuvering that involves the defections of mutinous naval crewmen to the Incan allyus and revelations concerning Granby's sexuality that seem to be taken remarkably in stride by Lawrence (especially given the Victorian social standards he anachronistically seems to apply to the female aircrew he travels with), Napoleon arrives on the scene with Lien to propose an alliance by marriage to the Sapa Inca, offering himself as the bridegroom. This foils Hammond's plan but not before Tremeraire and Iskierka come to realize that what they want for their captain's may not always coincide with the desires of their partner, providing yet more commentary on the nature of interpersonal interactions and the concept of ownership of humans. The tables turn quickly, and Lawrence, Tremeraire, and the rest find themselves on the run again, which luckily seems to drive them back to their original mission of helping the Portuguese in Brazil. Eventually they wind up in Brazil where they find the Tswanan dragons swarming about with thousands of escaped or rescued slaves under their protection, and the Portuguese holed up on plantations holding their remaining slaves hostage in an effort to ward off Tswanan assaults. Before too long they are joined by Lily, Maximus, Messoria, Immortalis, Dulcia, and Nitidus, the British air corps apparently having been heavily depleted to send aid to the Portuguese.

But the evolution of the story doesn't permit Lawrence to actually fulfill the desires of his Portuguese allies, as he cannot in good conscience expend the lives of his dragons and crew in a futile effort to defeat the Tswana so as to allow slavers to hold humans in bondage. Instead, he forces a compromise with the Tswana upon the Portuguese, seizes the French transports, and sets out for China. In the end, after all of the gyrations of the story in Crucible of Gold, the situation is more or less the same as it was at the outset. The Portuguese are deprived of their slaves, although now it is because they are being monitored by the Tswana rather than ransacked by them, although that situation could have been resolved without Lawrence's involvement at all, making his perilous journey across the Pacific and South America somewhat pointless. The the political situation for the British ends the story as it began, with the only real political development being that Napoleon has neutralized the Inca as a possible British ally. But given that the idea of an Incan alliance was not even seen as a possibility by the British at the beginning of the book, having it neutralized isn't really much of a plot development. In short, nothing of any substance relating to the wider war against Napoleon happens.

In the end, for all of the motion that takes place in the book, nothing of any importance seems to have taken place. Despite all of the sturm und drang, all that really happens in the book are baby steps of character development and tiny tidbits of dragon-related information, relayed in an almost off-hand manner by Lien. Despite the fact that Lawrence, Tremeraire, Iskierka, Granby, and the remaining characters remain likable and, to varying degrees, interesting, the series seems to have stalled out, moving forward inch by painful inch. And while the end of the story had our heroes heading back to China in response to an imperial invitation, given the way the last two books in the series have gone, one expects that the next book will have them taking a long circuitous route to get there, followed by not much of anything happening. Though Crucible of Gold is a pleasantly diverting way to spend an afternoon, the Tremeraire series as a whole feels like a rudderless ship that is drifting aimlessly.

Previous book in the series: Tongues of Serpents.

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  1. Hello! I found your review through a google alert for Naomi Novik.

    This has been one of my favorite series ever, but I do agree with you about the last two books. Painful. I can understand Tongues of Serpents being that way; after all, they are in a prison colony, and the desert is hardly hospitable. And it was at least made interesting by the bunyips and the interaction with Rankin, and the African boy (forget his name) coming to command the new, large dragon (forget his name as well).

    But Crucible of Gold just seemed pointless. I understand that the Portguese prince regent actually was in Rio during part of the Napoleanic wars, so the historical basis does seem valid, but the plot seems like much ado about nothing. The only thing it added to the story was a few juicy tidbits about the characters, and the full circle relationship between dragons and humans (dragons being the owners in the slave relationship). Those things were interesting, but didn't warrant an entire book.

    On the other hand, I still have high hopes for the remaining two books in the series, and hoping it finds its way again to bring it on home!

  2. @Vorkosigrrl: The high quality of the first part of the series is part of what has made these last two books so painful. The first couple books it was fun to watch as the world was changed by the addition of dragons and yet Novik was able to recreate the key battles of Napoleon's campaigns. But in the last two books the series has simply foundered, drifting along without any real advance to the main plot. I think that this may be because Novik has written herself into a corner and can't figure out how to get to the Battle of Nations, but that's just a guess.