Book Review 2009 #22: Empire of Ivory

My Twenty Second book of 2009 is a return to Naomi Novik’s tales of Temeraire and Captain Laurence in their alternate world/history of the Napoleonic wars with Dragons.

Empire of Ivory is the fourth novel in Novik’s series, after His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War. Like all of the books in this series, the action follows fairly closely on the heels of the previous novel. And like all of the previous novels save the first, reading the novels that come before it is essential to understanding what is going on.
In a nutshell, this is an alternate world/alternate history set in a 19th century where men are learning to breed and tame dragons for use in the military. Napoleon is still threatening to conquer Europe and his machinations have, ironically, brought the egg of, and later the hatched egg of a powerful Chinese dragon, Temeraire, to the hands of the English, and the bonding of Temeraire to Captain Will Laurence. Formerly a naval officer, the novels, at their best, have explored his “culture shock” in the dragon corps.
In this fourth novel, after reverses on the continent against Napoleon’s army, the English are licking their wounds and dreading a cross-Channel invasion when a new wrinkle and complication occurs–a strange, debilitating illness which is devastating the entire dragon corps of England. The loss of the dragons would leave England at the mercy of Napoleon’s forces.
The only clue is that Temeraire had a brief illness of his own on his journey to China (in Throne of Jade), and recovered while in South Africa. And so, in the search for a cure to save England’s dragons leads Temeraire and Laurence into the dark of Africa…
I think I mentioned in previous reviews that I felt that Throne of Jade and Black Powder War did not recapture the magic and deft touch that His Majesty’s Dragon did. Novik seemed to take the wrong lessons from the success of that first novel, and so the second and third novels, while not bad novels, just didn’t hit on all the cylinders the first one did.
This fourth novel, while still not quite capturing the magic of His Majesty’s Dragon, seems to be more more in the vein of the first novel, and less of the problems of the second and third novels. The characters develop, we do get some travelogue, we get development of the history and politics of the world, and things occur. Pacing is good, and at 400 pages, the novel is of a goodly and not-padded length to tell the story it wants to tell.
And it ends with an obvious cliffhanger. The actions Laurence and Temeraire take at the end of the novel are shocking and surprising on face value, but they grow naturally from the events starting in the first novel. Novik does not break the character. Indeed, if the characters did not take their actions, that would have been a betrayal of their characters.
I enjoyed it, and look forward to the MMPB version of the fifth novel, Victory of Eagles.