I find it somewhat difficult to review this book properly. Certainly, it's a fast-moving story, engaging story. But I find that I am so utterly smitten with Temeraire and the dragons in general that I may not be paying proper attention to flaws that would trouble me much more in most books. I know even less of China in Napoleonic times than I do of England and France, but I find the Chinese society -- based on the improbable premise that everything is the same except there are dragons -- even more improbable than the English one. But it seems as internally consistent as many pure fantasy novels, so it doesn't really bother me. The world is a flight of whimsy, but it's entertaining, and some important issues about the human condition do work their way in. The plot is at least a little contrived, and some of the characters' motivations, especially the non-human characters', are perhaps a little off. But then, dragons ought to be a little different from humans.
I enjoyed it a lot; my disappointment that it's over is mitigated by the fact that I have the next two waiting on the shelf. 9 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
The book opens with Laurence in a very uncomfortable audience with a Chinese embassy. The Chinese ambassador wants Temeraire returned to China, and the British government seems eager to hand him over. Neither Laurence nor Temeraire are interested in such; Laurence nearly commits treason and Temeraire nearly commits mayhem on Lord Barham. After some tense back and forth, the Chinese ambassador decides that if Temeraire will not come to China without Laurence, then Laurence must come with them. Laurence doesn't want to go -- Temeraire is needed in the war effort -- but since the diplomats are convinced that this is the only way to avert war with China, he agrees. There is a battle in the Channel, which Temeraire insists on joining; the French get a boarding party onto Temeraire which nearly succeeds in taking Laurence out, and Temeraire sustains some damage. This infuriates Yongxing the Chinese ambassador -- Celestials are not supposed to be endangered in battle. But eventually, Laurence, a few of Temeraire's crew, and a young, brash diplomat named Hammond who is what passes in England for a China expert join Temeraire and the Chinese embassy aboard Allegiance, a
The next major excitement is a French attack off by Gibraltar or so. Two French frigates and a Fleur-de-Nuit (a French breed that can see in the dark) are giving them some serious trouble, but the Chinese lend them some rockets, and Temeraire unleases the Divine Wind, sinking one of the French ships, and the rockets attract an English dragon wing. The French dragons fly off in the night and the rest of their fleet is taken as prizes. There are state dinners aboard the ship, and the Chinese cooks start preparing gourmet meals for Temeraire. Past the Cape of Good Hope they are attacked by a sea serpent, which Temeraire sees as a fellow dragon, but can't communicate with. One of the Chinese flunkies tries to kill Laurence during a typhoon and is washed overboard with one of the crew.
Eventually they reach China. They are all amazed to see that dragons are free citizens, moving about on their own business through the cities. They meet Lung Tien Lien, an albino Celestial who is bonded to Yongxing. White is an unlucky color and Lien is considered ill omened, so Yongxing gave up his place in the line of succession to the throne to be her companion. This doesn't seem to have made him at all sympathetic to Laurence and Temeraire's bond; he tries to inveigle a young Chinese boy into Temeraire's presence, but Laurence sees it as a transparent and insulting attempt to steal Temeraire, and won't let it continue. This brings Laurence and Hammond's relationship to a new low. Then Sun Kai, the envoy who had seemed more inscrutable and less friendly aboard the ship, comes in and tells them, in perfect English, that they are about to be attacked by a small army and need to move. Sun Kai had spent the entire voyage pretending to have no English and spying, and Laurence is too pissed off to be interested in going with them, especially since Temeraire is off visiting Lung Tien Qian, his mother. However, he believes the warning enough to prepare a defensive position in a pavilion, especially when they realize that the regular guards have not been making their normal patrols that day. The attack comes, and the battle rages through the whole night, with the badly outnumbered but far better weaponed English holding their own. (The greatest threat is when the Jackie Chan character shows up, makes a humanly impossible entrance, and kills one of the English and cripples another before Laurence can get his pistol loaded. The Shaolin superpowers that let him take out a couple of men armed with swords aren't a match for a bullet to the brain, however, and this loss starts to demoralize the attackers. One more sneaky trick -- coming through the pipes that feed the private pond -- is thwarted. Dawn breaks, the remaining attackers disappear, and Sun Kai this time is allowed to spirit them away as they collapse unconscious in their sedan chairs. They learn later that day that they are now guests of Crown Prince Mianning. Temeraire arrives, all apologetic; he eventually reveals that he was in the company of a charming lady dragon and quite lost track of the time. He is embarrassed, but Laurence forgives him, while not quite letting him off the hook, and casually reveals that Mianning's dragon, who looks so much like Temeraire, is actually his twin, and a light bulb goes off in Hammond's brain. Giving Temeraire's egg to Napoleon was only an excuse to remove a rival claimant to the throne -- since the future emperor must be the companion of a Celestial -- and not the sign that the French really have a deeper alliance with China. Things are suddenly looking up diplomatically, when they are invited to a do hosted by Liu Bao, the other envoy from the ship. Liu Bao makes the brilliant suggestion that if the Emperor were to adopt Laurence, then all the forms would be met, he could be Temeraire's companion, Temeraire could go home to England (and not be a political threat to Mianning), and all would be well. Laurence isn't thrilled -- his family would be upset -- but agrees. At this affair, they realize that Mianning's son and heir is none other than the child that Yongxing tried to get to cozy up with Temeraire, and the mentail dominoes fall into place that all their troubles have been the result of Yongxing's scheming. Temeraire nearly attacks him on the spot, but Laurence seeks to restrain him, only to find a dagger in his shoulder. Temeraire kills the assassin and turns on Yongxing, only to have Lien rise to defend him. Laurence is terrified, for Lien, being much older, is bigger and faster than Temeraire, but Temeraire is wily. He breaks off from their aerial battle to try to reach Yongxing. Lien stops him, and as they battle on the ground, they knock out a support of the temporary stage. Laurence sees the stage falling and saves Prince Mianning from being crushed, but Yongxing is conveniently skewered through the eye by a bit of flying debris. Instead of going berserk, Lien breaks off the fight and flies off with his body. At this point, it's all over but the fancy ceremony. Laurence is granted an estate in China which he turns over to Hammond as an informal embassy and they return to England.