Ben Babcock's Reviews > Empire of Ivory

Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik
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Apr 22, 2015

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bookshelves: from-library, own, 2009-read, alternate-history, british-historical, fantasy, historical-fiction, 2015-read
Read from April 12 to 15, 2015 , read count: 2

Most of my first review of Empire of Ivory stands, so rather than rehash that, I’ll just comment on where my opinion has changed or things I noticed that I didn’t mention in the first review.

I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews, but Laurence is just such a delightful character. I think we’ve gotten used to seeing caricatures of women from the turn of the nineteenth century simply based on Jane Austen’s celebrity. It’s refreshing to see Naomi Novik capture the thoughts of a English gentleman of the same time period.

By most standards, Laurence is a pretty good guy. He stands up for what’s right, is against slavery, and as we see at the end of the book, will go all the way when he and Temeraire and dragonkind are against the ropes. Yet Novik does a good job making sure that, as progressive as he might be, he is still a product of his times. He is still slightly scandalized by the presence of women serving in the Aerial Corps, even if he has managed to accept it as a necessity. Watching his reactions to Jane and Emily Roland, to Catherine Harcourt’s pregnancy, is great. We get to see him try to reconcile his entire upbringing, which taught him to regard women as the “weaker sex,” fit for childbearing and little else, with his experience as an officer in the Corps, fighting alongside Harcourt and Emily and Jane.

Novik similarly draws out realistic-seeming behaviour from the British government in terms of its weaponization of the disease afflicting British dragons. (Although Laurence rightly frames this as genocide, if we accept that dragons are sentient enough to be soldiers rather than mounts, this is also an instance of biological warfare.) Obviously Britain didn’t have dragons in the real Napoleonic Wars … but if they did have them, this totally seems like something they would have done. It’s believable, in so much as anything in a book with dragons can be believable.

I also liked Empire of Ivory better this time around—not enough to increase its rating to four stars, but enough that I will retract my comments about its pacing. Maybe it was just the mood I was in this time around, but I enjoyed the time that Novik lingers in each setting.

As we progress in the series, the biggest motif, of course, is the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. This is essentially How to Train Your Dragon for adults. In previous books, Novik mostly explores whether Laurence and Temeraire are meant to be together, or whether their association is an aberration. She transposes them into different settings that allow each to explore what they might become without the other. Now, at the end of Empire of Ivory, Laurence establishes beyond any shadow of a doubt that his loyalties are to Temeraire first, beyond even the British Empire he has served so faithfully. It’s a romantic notion, one all the stronger for the three books that have preceded this one.

I love this series. As with many such series, so far none of the books are particularly amazing, but together they add up to a diverting and rewarding experience. Dragons and Napoleon. Seriously, what more can you ask for?

First Review (November 15, 2009)

I've finally read all the Temeraire books published to date, albeit out of order. Sometime early next year I hope to re-read them, in order, at which time I can probably write better reviews. It has been ages since I read Black Powder War , and I read Victory of Eagles this year, so I was in the interesting position of knowing how this book ended but not how it began. Despite this continuity snafu, I still enjoyed Empire of Ivory.

Disease is killing the dragons of Britain. Without some form of cure, Britain's Aerial Corps will be devastated and Napoleon will be able to invade without much difficulty. Fortunately, Temeraire was exposed to the disease before, when he and Laurence were in Africa, and they set off to Capetown to find a cure. Only they find something much more . . . for in Africa, as in the rest of the world, there be dragons.

Empire of Ivory is a nice change of pace for the Temeraire series, as the main antagonist is not Napoleon or a similarly megalomaniacal villain. Unfortunately, Novik doesn't always compensate for this lack of external conflict. Parts of the book were slow—indeed, the middle and the very end were the best, with everything around those parts feeling like filler at times. After a strong opening amidst an intense retreat back to Britain, the story calms to a low simmer, dangling before us some philosophically interesting points on the parallel between dragons and human slaves, trying to tide us over until the real action begins. It takes too long to send Laurence and Temeraire off on the quest for the cure, which we know is going to happen, too long to get there, and too long to get the cure.

The discovery of the Tswana empire makes the retrieval of that cure difficult. Now, I loved Novik's portrayal of the Tswana empire and its dragons for two reasons: once again we get to see a unique way for a people to treat the dragons with which it coexists, and the veneration of dragons as ancestors continues the commentary on how the British treat their dragons.

The Tswana believe that spirits of their ancestors will reincarnate in the form of a dragon—not randomly, but only if certain rituals and procedures, such as telling the unhatched dragon about its former life, are observed. As a result, dragons grow up believing they are former humans, believing that those alive are their descendants. This is a powerful bond, the result of which is a more unified dragon-human nation than we've ever seen, China included. The dragons and humans of Tswana are literally one people. They work together to achieve massive feats of engineering and agriculture, cultivating the cure that Laurence and Temeraire so desperately seek. But they carry a grudge against those, the slavers, who would sell their people as stock.

In China, we see dragons and humans co-existing as equals. According to intelligence from France, Lien is succeeding in bringing Napoleon around to a similar viewpoint. He's widening the streets of Paris so she may perambulate down them, and he's beginning to integrate French dragons into French society—perhaps not anywhere near par with China, but certainly more than Britain has been doing. The Tswana have done something similar, a third case study, if you will, that supports Novik's running theme: the better dragons are treated, as equals and not as servants, and the better they protect their country. China's aerial corps is largely considered superior to most nations'; France's is improving daily; and the Tswana destroy three British settlements in Africa after Laurence's incursion provokes them, fielding more dragons than anyone ever thought existed on the continent. Clearly there's a correlation between dragon care and dragon military performance, an incentive for the government of Britain to buy into Temeraire's philosophy of human-dragon equality. And this is a much better way to criticize the slave trade than simply using dragons as a straight metaphor for slaves. Novik's instead proved a more general case that applies to both dragons and slaves.

Oh, did I not mention the slave trade subplot? Laurence's father has tapped Laurence as a public figure to stand toe-to-toe with Lord Nelson, who's doing a fine job of opposing any abolitionist legislature that makes it to the House of Lords. Laurence is all for abolition but not too keen on being the movement's figurehead.

Two freed slaves, the married Mr. and Mrs. Reverend Erasmus, accompany Laurence to Africa as missionaries. Then, in a bizarre twist I didn't quite buy, Erasmus gets killed and we learn that Mrs. Erasmus is apparently from the Tswana empire, captured as a child. Yes, the Tswana have dragons, but they're still prey to other tribes, who act as proxies for the slavers. Go figure. I found the actions of the Tswana characters somewhat uneven: presumably they had some inkling of the existence of British settlements on the coast before, right? Why wait to destroy them until now?

This unevenness crops up a good deal in Empire of Ivory. Laurence and Temeraire triumphantly return to Britain with the cure, at which point the government reveals that, surprise, it's already spreading the disease to the French in a mass dragon genocide scheme. Because we didn't see that coming. Still, it lets Temeraire and Laurence commit treason, which is awesome, because . . .

. . . it's fresh. Empire of Ivory is slow because it's very safe. Aside from the simmering slave-trade subtext, there's little that rocks the series boat until the very end. Now Laurence and Temeraire are traitors, who have willingly returned to England to face punishment. And as I know from reading Victory of Eagles, this isn't something that can be dismissed so the series can reset to status quo. It's a serious ethical dilemma that required Laurence to choose: take a stand against genocide and commit treason against the country to which he's sworn loyalty, or go along, play the good soldier, and watch the dragon to whom he's become attached commit treason to save his people. Everything's different now, and I love it. I just feel that, as great as the ending was, there were better paths to getting there than the one taken by Empire of Ivory.

My review of the Temeraire series:
Black Powder War | Victory of Eagles

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