Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

The latest book in the Temeraire series, book 6, finds Will Laurence and his dragon Temeraire in Australia, at the time of the Napoleonic wars. The author Novik is a history buff and writes convincingly of the details of war as waged at that time. However, this is an “alternate” history, and these Napoleonic wars, while covering much of the same territory as their real counterparts, differ significantly in events, such as Napoleon actually invading England in Victory of Eagles, Book 5. While many praise Novik for her realistic portrayal of historical settings, and others imply that readers who simply love dragons are lining up at book signings, in my opinion the strength of these books goes far beyond possessing those two elements. Her ability to pull you into the action and circumstances of each chapter, without your noticing it, shows what some reviewers have commented on – prose that carries no excess weight or dreary detail. What I have found tremendous is her consummate skill in ending chapters, so that just as you feel as despairing of circumstance as Temeraire or Laurence might be feeling, in one stroke all is changed.

The two are in New South Wales, a British prison colony, since Laurence was condemned as a traitor to Britain and Temeraire along with him. Neither are prisoners, however, since Laurence’s sentence was changed to being deported. While they continue on adventures with British forces, their status has changed and they might, if they wished, leave it all behind and retire to a farm in the interior. Somehow you know this will not happen. Novik likes showing the underside of politics --- how fine or not so fine intentions of leaders or countries end up being implemented with consequences brutal to both soldiers and civilians. This book has struck some readers as dreary, as there is a long overland passage involved, as in Book 3. In my view, Novik is depicting how tiring and numbing such journeys can be. And if I can’t actually be there, I appreciate feeling as if I am. (there are some nice excerpts of an interview with Naomi Novik at io9.com/5634183)

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