I was stuck at home today, snowed in when I should have been at EFRC, and I indulged my self-pity by reading the next Temeraire book. So today's bonus book review is Black Powder War by Naomi Novik. Third in the series, and if you want to understand just who the characters are and how they got to the start of the book, start with His Majesty's Dragon and continue with Throne of Jade.
I remain sufficiently smitten with Temeraire that it's hard to be properly critical. As Temeraire and company get caught up in Napoleon's ground war in Europe, we're presented with increasingly less historical military situations; I wish I knew a bit more of the real history. I'm guessing that the outcome of the battles is fairly historical, even though the tactics involved certainly aren't. Oddly enough, reading this book gives me a lot of feeling for the ugly side of the actual historical war and a general impression of why Napoleon was so effective. That's the best part of the story; the other themes, about the dragons' social capabilities and how they might integrate better into European society, while still entertaining, are starting to seem dangerously contrived and also seem to be contradicting what was implied in the earlier books. I'm wondering how long Novik can manage to keep any sort of control on the chaos that seems to be spreading through her world. Hopefully, it won't lose so much plausibility that it ceases to be fun. (I thought I knew where the series was going to go in book 4 waiting on the shelf, Empire of Ivory. Suddenly, it seems like it might be going in a different direction entirely.) But while I think the writing has fallen off just a tiny bit, I'm really eager to see where we go next. 8 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
In the Prologue, Temeraire is still in China proper and they happen to see Lien surreptitiously bury Prince Yongxing and disappear.
Then we're in Macao, waiting for favorable seas for Allegiance to depart, when a fire on board nearly destroys the ship. Thanks to Temeraire using the jolly boat as a bucket to put out the fire, the ship is saved, but it will take months to repair. Just as this happens, they receive an apparently legitimate message by a most unlikely courier, a half-English, half-Chinese fellow named Tharkay. The message directs Laurence and Temeraire to travel immediately to Istanbul to escort a valuable fire-breathing dragon egg home to England. They don't fully trust Tharkay, but the order, however oddly delivered, seems too real to ignore, and they set off overland, with Tharkay as native guide. They have Adventures on the way, including being caught in a sandstorm in the Asian desert, and Tharkay acts shifty enough that Laurence really wonders about him. They encounter a band of feral dragons somewhere in central Asia (the geography is unclear in the book, without looking up a map on line and trying to match the place names that are somewhat familiar with the real world), who contrary to prior expectation actually talk -- in an obscure language which Tharkay knows a bit of -- and seem to be as intelligent and civilized as human barbarian bandits might be. The ferals attach themselves to the expedition, only to greatly embarrass Laurence when they arrive at the outskirts of Istanbul by setting on the Sultan's cattle and then flying off to leave Laurence to deal with the mess. They are installed in the Sultan's palace and promptly ignored for a couple of days, and Laurence suspects their contact, a Pasha named Mustafa, of deliberately sabotaging their efforts. Tharkay, who'd disappeared, reappears and convinces Laurence to trust him to follow him to the banker who had paid the £500,000 to the Sultan that was supposed to secure the fire-breathing egg, which they now know will hatch in weeks. They're nearly caught by the Sultan's guards sneaking back, but Tharkay proves himself trustworthy in getting Laurence back. When they finally manage an audience with the Sultan, only to find Lien with him in the throne room, they realize that they will never get their eggs honestly, so they steal it. They're being incubated in the harem's baths, and the ever resourceful Tharkay guides them to grab the eggs. They manage to escape, and fly overland first to Austria, where a sympathetic garrison commander (Austria itself having pledged fealty to Napoleon after Austerlitz) sends them on their way to Prussia. When they arrive there, the Prussians press-gang Temeraire into service in lieu of the 20 English dragons that were supposed to have arrived 2 months ago to support their campaign. (We never do learn what happened to those dragons. I suspect the real history had some similar muddle in it, with Prussia not actually getting vital support it had been promised.) Laurence's weird English honor causes him to devote himself fully to the Prussian cause, and to bring Temeraire along for the ride. Of course, they start out thinking that it will be easy to defeat Napoleon, but once Lien shows up and Napoleon starts using dragons in novel new ways, to effectively teleport infantry and guns to unexpected positions, the war goes very badly. In just a few weeks, Prussia is defeated, the fire breathing egg hatches at the most inconvenient time (forcing a nearly starving Temeraire to share his one meager sheep, but allowing Granby to Impress, er, harness, the dragonet), and they manage to slip through the French dragons into Danzig, only to discover that they're trapped there. And Lien shows up to speed up the siege. They're just about to make a desperate break for it when 20 dragons show up -- Arkady and the ferals from before, whom Tharkay had managed to recruit. Tharkay drugs the Fleur de Nuit (the French dragon that can see in the dark) and the dragons evacuate the whole remaining Prussian army, 15000 strong, to the waiting English navy, leaving Lien screaming her rage on the shore.
Oddly, just as Temeraire, having had his nose rubbed in the real horrors of war, is accepting Laurence's position that correcting the dragons' conditions of slavery will have to wait until after the war, Laurence is realizing how much more the dragons can do for the war effort when a strong leader and real necessity force them to accept closer contact with them. Things would be looking very exciting, in a good way, for English society, except that the war is looking very grim indeed, and it's going to take some real doing to *have* an English society.