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Naomi Novik Takes Flight with ‘Tongues of Serpents’

Reviewed by Clea Simon
Read more GalleyCat Reviews

Dragons, anyone? With her sixth Temeraire novel (Tongues of Serpents) in hardcover and a Peter Jackson film deal in the works, Naomi Novik may have finally stepped out from the ranks of guilty pleasuredom into full-fledged cult status.

As many of us already know, Novik is a master of history-based fantasy, a onetime Brown history major who has transformed the Napoleonic wars through the addition of mythological creatures, from sea serpents to dragons.

Her series focuses on one of the latter, an intelligent, sometimes oversensitive beast named Temeraire, who has bonded with an unlikely human counterpart, a onetime sea captain named Will Laurence.

Drafted into England’s dragon-based Aerial Corps, a disreputable but key fighting force in this alternative universe, Laurence has had to unlearn much of his 19th Century etiquette while Temeraire has absorbed both the vagaries of English military life and his own heritage.

Having fought all over Europe and journeyed to China, where Temeraire discovered his roots, the pair have developed their own unique moral compass, as well as their relationship. Thanks to a purely humanitarian act, they found themselves accused of treason at the end of book five, “Victory of Eagles.” And so, as the new volume, “Tongues of Serpents,” opens, they have been transported to New South Wales.

It’s new territory for our protagonists, and the series, for although Novik has taken the duo out of the European wars before – landing them in Imperial China in “Throne of Jade” (book 2) and Africa in “Empire of Ivory” (book 4) – she’s never thrown them quite so far out of royal favor. Only Temeraire’s value to England has kept Lawrence from being executed, and their status in the fledgling colony is nearly on a par with the other transported convicts who make up the bulk of the population.

That sets Lawrence and even the rather childlike Temeraire up for greater tests of character than they had faced in previous books. In fact, a major crisis comes when the former military governor seeks the team’s help. He offers reinstatement, as well as riches, but even Temeraire can see that the notorious William Bligh (once captain of HMS Bounty) does not deserve either aid or power.

Beside this crisis, the main action of the new book centers on three dragon eggs that the transported team have the care of and on Lawrence’s quest to find a way through this forbidding and largely unexplored continent – a route he suspects exists because of the appearance of smuggled goods. The property of the Crown, these eggs are supposed to help start a covert of dragons in the colony, and one has already been promised to a scoundrel whose callousness has already cost one dragon her life. When one of the precious eggs goes missing, apparently taken overland to a fabled northern port, these two plots come together, resulting in a trying overland chase.

But a chase, even over uncharted and hostile territory, isn’t the same as a battle, and this one goes on far too long. Tantalizing hints at other creatures – and an interesting diversion into sea serpent training – pop up along the way. However, much of this book lacks the conflict and excitement of the previous entries. In a way, this sixth installment reads like a transitional work: letting the major characters explore their own motivations, rather than wasting time in action and adventure.

Novik has said that she sees this book as the first part of a three-volume arc, so perhaps such introspection was necessary. And her Austen- esque humor and vivid descriptive powers are intact, so the book is far from a total loss. It is, however, the first of the series that isn’t likely to lure in new readers.

With his hobbits on hold, let’s hope Jackson has better luck with dragons. And that Novik gets back to form in book seven. Temeraire – and his devoted fans – deserve as much.

Clea-glasses-inset.jpgClea Simon‘s latest novel is “Grey Matters,” (Severn House). She can be found online at cleasimon.com

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