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Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik
Good Book
annathepiper
Late, but here! These being my remarks for the third book in naominovik's Temeraire series, Black Powder War.

Picoreview: Has a definite "middle of a series" flavor about it--not unlike trying to read one of the Aubrey-Maturins. It reads a lot more like a series of unrelated episodes than one big plot. But as with Patrick O'Brian, if you think about it as one big ongoing story, that makes it less jarring! Plus, there's lots more goodness here with Novik's dragons, interesting glimpses into how more cultures besides Britain treat their dragons, and some new and entertaining characters both human and draconic.

Meanwhile, Novik has posted that she has contracted with Del Rey for three more books, though they will be coming more slowly now, one per year. Yay! And in the same post, she links to a short story she has put on her site! It's cute--and shows how Temeraire leads an effort among the dragons to see if they can get at some tasty snacks sheep.

And as if the Patrick-O'Brian-y flavor of Novik's books isn't already strong enough, apparently it goes both ways! Also in the same post, she mentions that someone commented to her that they'd watched Master and Commander for the very first time, and found themselves thinking in the opening minutes of the movie, "But where would they put the dragon?" HEE!


But as to Black Powder War, I was a trifle surprised that this book came out to be a lot more along the lines of "two disparate plots smooshed together into one book" rather than one big plot. You have Plot Number 1, which is Laurence and Temeraire going to Turkey to get the three dragon eggs, and Plot Number 2, which is Laurence and Temeraire having to stop over on the way home to help the Austrians fight off Napoleon. There is no particular overall resolution, either--no great victory achieved in the fighting--and ultimately Laurence and Temeraire head home to Britain because there's not much else they can do. But as I mentioned above, realizing that this episodic, "middle of a series" feel is something I've seen before in Patrick O'Brian made it much less jarring.

I do feel like we had a bit too much of a rush from Plot 1 to Plot 2, nevertheless. There were plenty of interesting hints dropped about why the Turks were balking on surrendering the eggs, and about the fate of the British ambassador--but none of that ever got played out to my satisfaction, and instead we just went to Laurence deciding that they were just going to steal the eggs and hightail it away as fast as possible. Not that I think that was out of character for him necessarily (and I was at least pleased to see him fretting about whether he was going to get in trouble for that impulsive decision, later), but I really did rather want to know what the heck was up with that. And whether the hints dropped about Laurence's orders to pick up the eggs in the first place were bogus.

Writing-wise, the book didn't throw me any of those occasional moments of music in the prose that I saw in His Majesty's Dragon, but that was quite all right. There was plenty for me to like here, and first and foremost, there was a whole new pile of information about the dragons of the world. I particularly liked the revelation of at least one and possibly more dragon languages--including mentioning of sounds in them that human throats cannot produce. Which is absolutely right, and, as Temeraire exulted, is additional evidence that dragons are in fact Sentients. Temeraire in fact expresses the hope that the knowledge that dragons are making their own languages can help convince British society to treat them as equals--and I very much hope that we'll see Temeraire getting to fight that fight.

Similarly, I loved the introduction of the feral dragons led by Arkady. They were admittedly a ragtag kind of band, and perhaps not the most sterling example of what dragons on their own might do in establishing their own society. But on the other hand, I expect it could be argued that given humanity's dominance of the planet, dragons don't have much room to establish their own society to any huge detail. We certainly see dragons with a higher standard of living in Throne of Jade--but I think that's almost more because dragons are living alongside humans, and we have no real idea of how much societal development there is because of dragons thinking up things, and how much of it is humanity doing so.

Quite a bit of goodness involving the Chinese dragon Lien, too. I really like that she is shaping up as an antagonist in her own right, and that she is going out and seizing her own fate even if it's because she's motivated to turn Laurence and Temeraire's lives into a living hell. This, too, is absolutely right in a setting where the dragons are People. We need to see dragons who can do exactly this kind of thing, rather than relying upon human companions to be in charge of them.

Hands down, though, the best of the new dragon characters is Iskierka! I absolutely loved her, I loved that she was a female, I loved that Granby finally got his dragon, and I loved that Temeraire was actually jealous of surrendering him to Iskierka as her captain. Someone on temeraire_fans was giggling over Novik taking the term "spitfire" literally with this little hellion, and I have to giggle over that myself. I particularly had to laugh and laugh at the fleeting reference to her accidentally charring her own food--which was done exactly right, just a quick mention and *boom*, move on, just fast enough to leave you a hysterical visual of a baby dragon looking bemused at the ashy mess she's made of her meal. ;) That's a fan art opportunity if I ever saw one!

Meanwhile, on the human side of things, I also liked Tharkay as a character and how he eventually shaped up to be almost a parallel to the dragons--not allowed to be considered a true equal of Respectable Society (read: white and British :P ) because of his mixed race, yet too useful to really be cast aside. I didn't blame him in the slightest for being bitter, and I appreciated that Laurence eventually got the clue and reached an accord with him. And I really liked that Tharkay did in fact go back and get the ferals. I was sad to see his eagle get bumped off, though. Sniff.

And I liked the glimpses we had of Napoleon as well as the Austrian monarchs, which put a more immediate face upon the ongoing war. I especially liked the exchange that Laurence managed to overhear between Lien and Napoleon (even though it was awfully convenient that he was in the right place at the right time to see that).

And I liked that the fighting in the second half of the book did not in fact result in victory--because it makes for good storytelling to see Laurence and Temeraire have to deal with defeat as well as victory, especially Temeraire.

All in all, not my favorite of the Novik books so far, but definitely still solid!

I see what you mean about a middle of the series flavor and two plots. And yes, the Istanbul section left me with lots of questions. I hope we'll come back to it later and find out what happened -- it seems like a lot of things left hanging, including the girl.

I loved Lien. More Lien!

Right, I totally forgot about the girl in Istanbul. She was indeed very interesting, and it was a shame that the plot just up and bailed on her as well as everything else there. (Though I must admit that I did also love the visual in my brain of Laurence accidentally bursting in on the harem; I can totally see him with a look of blushing consternation. ;) )

Definitely more Lien. I want to see her manipulating things and using the small squishy humans around her to achieve her ends!

Bit late to this comment, but I'm pretty sure the girl is in love with Tharkay and he with her - and that he can't marry her because of his relative lack of fortune & position. I might've misread that, because I finished Black Powder War during the longest travel hell ever. I'm so jet-lagged and spacy I can't even remember how to spell spacy. (Spacey? Spacy? I have no idea.)

I think Novik is playing pretty tight to the actual Napoleonic wars -- right up until Napoleon overextended himself into the Russian winter, he was kicking ass and taking names throughout the continent. He really did destroy the Austrians at Austerlitz and the Prussians at Jena. It wasn't until 1807-1808 that the English landed a military force in Portugal and began the Peninsula Campaign. The hassle of the English and the Spanish guerrilla fighters was enough to weaken and distract Napoleon, letting the Austrians launch a surprise attack and make some gains. (They called it 'The Spanish Ulcer' because it ate away at France's stronger units, nibbling them to death. Napoleon was -wonderful- at forcing large cumbersome armies to fight him. What he wasn't so good at was defending from smaller, more diffused attacks.) Though technically at peace, the Russians were grumpy about the trade restrictions that Napoleon forced on them -- and in order to quell their bitching, Napoleon got the Grand Armee together (500,000 troops) and marched into Russia. In winter. And froze.

And that was what let the allies regroup and eventually kick his little Corsican ass.

I really love the Napoleonic war. S'very interesting. Also, it's an excuse to watch the Sharp movies, which are full of Sean Bean-y goodness. :)

Dictionary.com says that "spacey" and "spacy" are both acceptable spellings. ^_^

....... and right then. I missed if anything was brewing between Tharkay and our young lass (and I am vexed that I remember his name just fine, but am not remembering hers). Clearly I will have to re-read the whole book to look for the bits I missed!

I'm not so versed on my Napoleonic history, so it's good to hear that Novik is following things pretty closely! And yeah, it does make for some grand storytelling, doesn't it? I need to read some more of the Sharpe novels, and look at the Sean Bean-y goodness, too!

I'm pretty sure the girl is in love with Tharkay and he with her - and that he can't marry her because of his relative lack of fortune & position.

Yes, I got that as well. There were a couple of comments to that effect.

Hope we see more of Tharkay in later books!

That would be excellent, yeah. He does have "recurring character" written all over him, and certainly there seems to be plenty of potential for him to be around for book four if they have to haul the feral dragons back to Britain!

I've read, and reread the Temeraire trilogy. Black Powder War is probably my least favorite of the books, and it's still a crackling good read.

It's my least favorite because of the two plots, as noted in your review, that kind of meander all over the place, and the sense of futility in the losing battles.

BIG plus signs, though, for the further development of Lien as not only a whopping mad nemesis for Temeraire and Laurence, but as Napoleon's new best friend. Lien is a fabulous character, and makes a worthy antagonist.

And who couldn't enjoy the birth and early life of Izkierka. I do hope the dragonet learns a little prudence, or the Corps will have to take out fire insurance in a big way.

But I want to see Temeraire fighting alongside Lily and Maximus once more. And I'm worried that Novik will kill off too many wonderful dragons (please, not Volly!) in the next book....

I have no Temeraire/dragon icons, btw, just LOTR (book and movie) and other stuff...

Hey there, sorry that I let this comment sit for so long! I often get really behind on my email and LJ comments, but I didn't want to ignore this one since I love the Novik books so much and was delighted to hear from another fan. :)

I too am very anxious to see Temeraire back with Lily and Maximus, and if Ms. Novik kills off any of the really cool dragons, I shall be most put out. Sniff.

I hear tell we have until next fall before we find out!