Friday, 12 October 2007

‘Empire of Ivory’ – Naomi Novik (Del Rey Books)

I’m not really a fan of the ‘alternate history’ genre. I find it really hard to get interested in things like ‘what would have happened if the American Indians had been armed with machine guns’ or ‘what if Hitler had tried to invade Australia’, it just reminds me of a really dull history lesson. So a book that asks how aerial warfare would have influenced the outcome of the Napoleonic War didn’t get my heart racing, until I found out that dragons were involved. That was a year ago and Naomi Novik’s books have now reached ‘must have’ status for me. Novik had already written the first three ‘Temeraire’ books so they were all published within a short space of time, ‘Empire of Ivory’ is the first book that fans have had to wait any length of time for and I for one was eager to get reading as soon as I got my little hands on it! Which reminds me; thanks go to Aidan for popping a copy in the post. I owe you one!
‘Empire of Ivory’ picks up the action just as Captain William Laurence and Temeraire return to England following the events of ‘Black Powder War’. Laurence is informed that the dragon population, in England is being decimated by illness and the race is on to find a cure while at the same time holding back ever bolder sorties from Napoleon’s forces. A possible cure may be found in Africa but will Laurence and Temeraire survive the trip? And if they do, what will be waiting for them when they return?
‘Empire of Ivory’ is a welcome addition to the series but every now and then I got the feeling that Novik was coasting with this one and not really trying to do anything new. Okay, if the formula works then why change it but we’re now four books into a six book series and it would have been nice to see her take some risks in terms of plot structure. What we get is basically the same plot as the other books; ‘Laurence/Temeraire’ journey to a foreign country and we get to see how dragons live there’. To be fair, Novik ends the book on a real cliff-hanger (which I think is the real reason we don’t get a teaser of the next book) but for me this came far too late to redeem the rest of the book. Having said all that though, an argument could be made that by repeating the formula Novik is gradually building an impressive picture of a world full of different customs where dragons are concerned. If this is what she is doing then I for one would say it’s a success.
I don’t know about anyone else but the main reason I read these books is for the evolving relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. I’ve been there ever since Temeraire’s egg hatched and have seen their partnership evolve with a sensitivity and poignancy that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any other ‘dragon’ book. There is a great deal of love between them and to see that grow gradually has been a real defining feature of the series so far. Laurence teaches Temeraire a lot about society but the dragon’s constant questioning of what he sees is starting to teach Laurence to do the same thing. I think Novik handles this well; she avoids the trap of projecting her opinions onto her characters but raises important questions at the same time.
Supporting characters don’t get the same kind of focus as Laurence/Temeraire but they’re not just cardboard cut-outs either, I’d say Novik treats them appropriately as the story demands. I’m also in awe of the research Novik has obviously done and the knowledge she displays about the Napoleonic era. If you took the dragons out of the picture you’d be left with a perfectly good historical novel. I’m glad Novik included dragons though!
Despite my own perceived shortcomings of the novel, ‘Empire of Ivory’ is a very good addition to the series as it stands. I’m hoping the cliff-hanger ending will mean a change in approach for the next book as this could really take the series onto another level.

Eight out of Ten


Robert said...

I've read the first three, but it's not really my cup of tea. I've never really liked historical fantasy either, and while the dragon concept is cool, I think Anne McCaffrey does it much better. So, I'll probably check out "Empire of Ivory" sometime, but it's not a series I would rush out and read...

Aidan Moher said...

Sounds like it was worth the trouble of sending it over the pond, Graeme!

Glad you enjoyed it,

A Dribble of Ink

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I'm gonna have to ditto Robert, here.

I have the first three, too, and while I thought they were OK (actually, the first was excellent, IMO), they didn't do that much for me ... the novelty started wearing off by the end of book 2, and book 3 seemed to follow the same almost formulaic pattern.

I'm yet to read Anne McCaffrey, either! :(

Loving the dragon theme, though, Graeme. Melanie Rawn is a good name, and one to read (I think! -- it's been ages since I lost my copies of her books) ...


The Book Swede