Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

This is the seventh of the Temeraire series, set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Novik has made some changes in the events of that time, and also determined that those mythical creatures, dragons, are a strategic component of many countries’ military might. Western nations have Aerial Corps, using dragons instead of planes for battles both on land and at sea. A captain in the Aerial Corps forms a bond with a dragon when it is hatched from the egg, but each dragon also has a crew that rides it by locking onto a web of harnesses, dropping bombs and firing weapons. While the concept sounds a bit whimsical, Novik’s detailed knowledge of that historical era, coupled with her ability to spin an exciting narrative, makes the series a success.

The dragons are fully capable of thought, speech and action when they are hatched, although they are able to mature with experience, like humans. They are characters in their own right and Temeraire, who the series is named after, is both noble and yet touching in his desire to help his own captain, Will Lawrence be successful and be looked up to both in the Corps and in society at large.

What has stymied Temeraire’s goal is the corruption and treachery that is part of human endeavor, so that Will and Temeraire both have found themselves outside the Corps and even banished from England. In this novel they have been asked to join the Corps again to help fight against Napoleon’s latest venture in Brazil. Many African dragons closely bound with village communities in their native country suffered the depredation of the slave trade, losing men, women, and children taken by the Europeans to the New World. (In an earlier book, Empire of Ivory, we met one of those dragons.) Napoleon has enlisted the African dragons to attack and lay waste to Brazilian colonies, giving them the inducement of finding and recovering their lost villagers.

In South America we see a culture permeated with dragons, like China, but with a different slant. Novik is not content to leave dragons (or people, for that matter) in one state of development, but keeps devising historical scenarios that allow for new characteristics to emerge. Because so many native peoples were stricken and died by disease brought to them by Europeans, the dragons set great store on those that remain, and care for those in their community like brooding hens, eager to have them raise descendents to continue their close companionship.

All of this makes for some complicated plots and subplots, yet the careful reader is rewarded with a panorama of political intrigue and simple soldiering that rings true. We can feel how long it takes to sail at these latitudes, in those ships, and how long it takes to struggle through mountainous passes. The series is rumored to be drawing to a close, and I will not be the only reader sorry to have it end.

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