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Book review: Tongues of Serpents - Phil's Rambling Rants
August 8th, 2010
09:44 pm

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Book review: Tongues of Serpents
Today's book review is Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik.

This is book 6 in the Temeraire series.  It's a fairly complete episode, but pretty much everything good about it is what it brings from the previous books.

This book is a big disappointment.  I'm a big fan of the series to date, so I  was really excited about getting to spend more time with probably my favorite imagining outside of my own head of one of my favorite kinds of creatures.  Unfortunately, while Temeraire is still pretty much the same wonderful person, he's being dragged along by a plot that, for most of the book, seems contrived, silly, and full of people making choices that don't really seem to make sense just to get us to the next scene.  It does get better toward the end, but a major chunk of the story just plain didn't work for me.  Fortunately, there are some hints of interesting developments in the world's political situation, so there's reason to hope that we won't visit this again and whichever of the possible upcoming adventures comes to pass will let us forget about this.

OK, it's not that bad.  It's just not very good, and I was expecting much more.  6 out of 10.





****  PLOT SUMMARY  --  MASSIVE SPOILERS  ****



We start the book with Laurence and Temeraire arriving in Van Diemen's Land (that's Tasmania), their last port before beginning their sentence of exile in Sydney.  Their plan to appeal to the colonial governor of Australia for a pardon comes apart when they discover that that governor, the notorious Captain Bligh, has been deposed by a rebellion.  Bligh is such a jerk that Laurence doesn't want to help him return to power, but he also doesn't want to be involved in supporting the rebellion.  So when they get to Sydney, he gets himself assigned to a quest to map out a road into the mountains to help expand the colony.  His trusty Oriental sidekick Tharkay turns out to be on a secret mission to root out the smugglers -- assumed to be French -- who are behind the sudden supply of Chinese goods in Sydney.  Granby and Iskierka come along because they aren't any happier with their choice of sides in the rebellion.  And they bring along the three eggs they brought with them from England, because they don't want to let either side have a dragon.  That's contrived enough, but then one of the eggs is stolen, and we spend half the book chasing after the stolen egg through the Australian outback, following the smuggler's trail.  They're set upon by mysterious monsters called bunyips which seem to be about half velociraptor and half ant lion, of somewhat indeterminate size but large enough to eat people.  They fight their way through fires and storms, see Uluru (the monolith formerly known to the English speaking world as Ayers Rock), and wind up at a new port on the north coast.  Along the way, the two non-stolen eggs have hatched.  The Yellow Reaper goes to Rankin, the rider that Laurence and Temeraire hate because he was horribly cruel to his old dragon.  Unexpectedly, the new dragon actually seems to turn Rankin into less of an asshole, rather than Rankin ruining the dragon.  When the runt egg hatches and appears badly deformed, Demane, one of the African orphans, claims it.  When Kilingila recovers and turns out to be a very mighty dragon indeed, Demane gets vindicated.  But that's about the only thing that happens on the whole chase across the outback that's not annoying.  Things actually get good again once we get to the secret port.  The stolen egg has hatched and already been claimed by the natives.  And there are a whole bunch of foreign ships from multiple countries converging.  There's a big celebration, and we finally learn the secret: the Chinese have trained a bunch of sea serpents to carry cargo under water, which is getting traded all over.  Everybody would see this as good except for the British East India Company, who thinks it's undermining their very lucrative monopoly on Chinese goods going to the west.  It's a political problem for other people, once they find out, until a couple of British frigates show up.  Temeraire wants to use the divine wind to stop them, but Iskierka jumps him.  The frigates fire on the port, and then the port counterattacks with their unexpected secret weapon: their dragon drops fish offal on the attacking boats, and the sea serpents immediately and devastatingly attack the frigates and destroy them.  Laurence gets to salve his conscience and be a bit of a hero by rescuing some of the Navy men, but the port looks like it will stay for now.  They get back to Sydney and it appears that another serpent trade route is being set up.  Tharkay offers to set up Laurence with some contacts where he can become a privateer, but Laurence and Temeraire plan to retire to the nice secluded verdant valley they found along their route, while Iskierka is sent off to Brazil to fight against the African force, now allied with Napoleon, who pointedly object to the slave trade.

The next book might be Temeraire the privateer, Temeraire getting pulled into the war in Brazil, Temeraire getting to visit America, or possibly Temeraire checking out India, since there was a brief hint that India is an interesting place too.

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