The premise of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels is simple: Patrick O’Brian with dragons instead of ships. What’s not to like? The first three or four books are pretty much a lark. The history is alternate – dragons! – but not too alternate, because otherwise there wouldn’t be any Royal Aerial Corps, nor any wicked Napoleon to fight. It doesn’t pay to think about the premise too hard. The notion that the presence of dragons in human history would lead to precisely the same configuration of events that allowed a young Corsican to be Emperor of France and would-be conqueror of Europe collapses as soon as it is plainly stated, so I will take it for granted and run with it. Which is precisely what Novik does, with panache.
The dragons in Novik’s world are sentient, and some are large enough to carry a crew of dozens of humans into aerial combat. The British, from whose point of view she tells the first few novels, regard dragons as beasts whose abilities to fight and talk make them useful but also dangerous. They are treated poorly, kept away from most human settlements, and strictly regimented by the Aerial Corps. The Corps itself is the most disreputable of Britain’s armed forces, the more so because dragons sometimes bond with women, accepting no one else as their captain.
In the first book, circumstances align to forge an unbreakable bond between a hatchling, soon to name himself Temeraire, and Capt. William Laurence, a Royal Navy officer of noble birth and high social standing. That volume, and the ones that follow mix exploration — Laurence is learning the strange customs of the aviators at the same time the readers are — and adventure. Part of the fun is watching how Novik arranges events so that dragons’ involvement in major battles of the Napoleonic wars changes the main line of history not a whit, something of an anti-butterfly effect. It’s a neat trick, when deftly done, and Novik is reasonably deft. Temeraire and Laurence are also a fun pair to spend time with; they’re not quite Aubrey and Maturin, but that is an awfully high bar to clear. It’s also fun to see their stock in the service rise, as Laurence becomes less of a stiff-upper-lip Navy man and more of a freethinking aviator, while Temeraire’s abilities grow far past expectations.
Precisely those developments, however, lead the series into more treacherous waters. Temeraire is too powerful for the balance of forces in Europe to stay the same, even after a similarly powerful dragon turns up as an ally of Napoleon. It’s as if Patrick O’Brian’s hero had discovered he was captain of a dreadnought in the middle of the age of sail. The stories are no longer yarns of adventure, but Novik is not yet ready to change European history. Her solution is to send her protagonists around the world (the Napoleonic wars had a global scope), but that brings in another difficulty: history outside of Europe is much more alternate. Africa, for instance, has a very different political setup than was known in our timeline. In South America, the Spanish never conquered the Inca, and a possible alliance between Napoleon and the Inca Empress drives the plot of one of the later books. These differences prompt more thinking about the premise of the series, which can’t really stand up to the scrutiny.
Novik has also grown as an author but, in contrast to Patrick O’Brian, her story’s basic structure cannot accommodate that growth. Laurence and Temeraire can continue their repartee, but Temeraire’s abilities mean he will be crucial to any English war effort. That, in turn, constrains the kinds of stories that Novik can tell about her pair. Within the world that she has set up, they matter to larger events in a way that Aubrey and Maturin never will, and so she is a bit stuck, narratively speaking.
In Blood of Tyrants, she partly gets around the structural issues by knocking Laurence off of a ship before the action begins, and opening with him landing on the shores of Japan, bereft of possessions or memory. This allows her to write Laurence almost as a new character and put to use the skills she has honed over the previous seven novels. It works, in that this development sets the characters back on their own resources and lets them have adventures without the overwhelming advantages they would otherwise bring. Unfortunately, Laurence the Navy officer (he has lost all recollection of his time in the Aerial Corps) is an annoying prig. I’m sure this Laurence was both more challenging and more interesting to write. The interleaving of scenes in the Japan part of the book is also a testament to Novik’s narrative skills. On the whole, though, my sense of the first part of the book was a wish that she would just get on with it, especially once it became clear that the British fleet that eventually rescues Laurence would play the role of Commodore Perry’s black ships, some decades earlier.
On the other hand, one brief bit of alternate history stood out for me much more now than it would have when the book was published in 2013:
“The President?” Temeraire said, and listened with mounting indignation as [John] Wampanoag [an American dragon] said, quite casually, “Yes: I have met him half a dozen times, and I am sure he will see the sense of a proper treaty with the Japanese for us. I should rather have had Hamilton in the job, of course, but there! You can’t have everything, and for all that he isn’t a Federalist, Tecumseh is a clever fellow.” (p. 157)
The middle section of the book reprises some of the Opium Wars, with Temeraire in a difficult position as he is both British and Chinese. The intrigue at the Chinese court is moderately interesting, and the outcome of the chapters in China sets up an important element for the final third of the book.
The cover of my edition of Blood of Tyrants features St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and I kept wondering when Laurence and Temeraire would get there. The series is about the Napoleonic era, and the tyrant’s attack on Russia is the great epic of that era. Fortunately, this part of the book delivers on its promise. The Russia section is epic, deft, and swift. It draws on War and Peace, opening at a soirée in St. Petersburg, with the airy gossip of the nobility contrasted against Laurence’s hard-won experience of war. Prussian officers languish on parole, their dragons held hostage by Napoleon against their good behavior. The emperors parlay, and set course for war. General Kutuzov, familiar from Tolstoy, retreats and retreats and retreats. This section is great fun, a stage suitable for Temeraire’s abilities, but set so that he cannot simply dominate the fighting. There is suspense throughout, the battle of Borodino, the sack of Moscow (Novik is not quite yet ready to upend European history), and finally the arrival of Russia’s most fearsome general: winter.
Blood of Tyrants might have been a better book if the first two-thirds had been radically condensed. The Chinese plotline is key to events in Russia, but the heart of the book is Napoleon’s invasion. I suspect that Novik was also writing, or at least preparing to write, Uprooted as she was working on the Russian section of Blood of Tyrants. Uprooted is set in the lands that Napoleon marched through, and her descriptions of those areas in Blood of Tyrants are more substantial, carry more weight than her depictions of Japan and China. The combination of greater knowledge, Tolstoy to lean on, and the overall dramaturgy of the Napoleonic wars makes the final third terrific storytelling. The cliffhanger ending leads straight into League of Dragons, the conclusion of the Temeraire series.