When I first discovered Naomi Novik’s alternate history, Napoleonic era with dragons, Dragonriders of Pern meets Hornblower series of books, I read them voraciously. The first three were out and available, and if I recall correctly, I read them in the space of about a week while doing all sorts of other things (like school and work). Book four again caught me by surprise – I didn’t note it until it was out in paperback – and then along came Victory of Eagles, the fifth and, to my mind, best since the first book in the series. For a number of reasons, I took some time away from the books, but recently I have decided to give it another crack, as there are now three books out that I have yet to read. Well, two now, as I’ve finished Tongues of Serpents. I can only hope that the two books I have still sitting on my shelf prove to be more exciting than the one I’ve just finished.
Before I get into my nits and picks with the novel, let me just say that Novik does very well those things that she has done before: namely, maintaining a cohesive and chronological timeline to the series that brings familiar characters back with familiar relationships, thus giving the reader a sense of spending time with old friends; and an eye to historical and cultural detail that shows as more than simple window dressing, as historical figures end up playing important roles, and local mythology shows up as a clear and integral part of the plot.
Now, I was not entirely captured by this book as I have been by the first five in the series. In a lot of ways, Tongues of Serpents feels like a short story plot that has been expanded into novel form. The vast majority of the novel is spent on long chase through the interior of Australia which is, from what I have garnered from the story, a very boring and largely unchanging place. In many ways, I think that this book is best seen as a set-up for further books to come in the series – I’ll see if this sense pans out when I get to the other two books in the coming weeks.
Tongues of Serpents picks up several months after the events of Victory of Eagles, with Laurence and Temeraire arriving in New South Wales at Sydney harbor aboard the HMS Allegiance dragon carrier. Iskierka and Granby have accompanied them, and they are carrying three eggs with them in order to start an aerial corps in the colonies. Unfortunately for Laurence and Temeraire’s sensibilities, they have to bring a bunch of second and third rate aerial officers with them in order to pair them with the new dragons, including Rankin, a particularly odious fellow who believes that title and legacy account for more than actual ability or humanity. Fortunately, in addition to Granby, several other familiar friends mitigate the distasteful relationships Laurence and Temeraire are forced into by circumstance, including: Roland, Admiral Jane Roland’s daughter; Tharkay, sometime employee of the British East India Company; and the brothers Demane and Sipho, who have come with Laurence as runners for Temeraire. Demane’s actually becomes one of the more interesting side-plots as the novel develops, as his earlier close work with the feral dragon Arkady, combined with his hunting skills, place him an unusual and potentially dangerous situation.
Upon arrival in Sydney, Laurence and Granby are approached by the recently deposed Governor Bligh, who is seeking their support (and more importantly that of their dragons) in order to regain control of the colony away from the New South Wales Corps. Novik has done her historical research, as Bligh (and yes, he is the same Bligh of mutiny on the Bounty fame) was really governor of Sydney, and he really was deposed during the Rum Rebellion. The leaders of the rebels also approach Laurence, holding the promise of a pardon in front of him for his support, so Laurence and company are more than happy to leave town when they are asked to find a passage through the Blue Mountains west of the colony.
One of the eggs hatches before they leave, and the dragon immediately chooses Rankin as his captain, and names himself Caesar – a rather presumptuous and unusual move. They carry the other two eggs and begin their journey. A few weeks in, one of the eggs is stolen, and thus begins the very long central part of the book that takes them all the way to the central north coast of Australia. Along the way they primarily deal with environmental dangers, from storms to brush fires. They also have to deal with disappearing crew members (made up largely of convicts seeking pardons), going missing one at a time at nearly every water hole they stop at. Turns out, according to some of the locals, that they are being predated upon by a local beast called a bunyip. When we do see one, they are nothing more than flightless dragons, who have some manner of communicating so that they are able to make the trek that much harder for Laurence et al. Oddly, though, there is never really any tension built into this conflict. The bunyips are the only non-environmental barrier they meet, and yet they never truly engage, preferring to stay apart and redirect water flow. This does not make for compelling reading.
At the end of the journey, rather than getting into a big fight, they are welcomed as honored guests by those who possess the dragon who has now hatched from the stolen egg, and are only forced to fight when two British ships, completely unaware of and insensitive to international affairs attempt to come in, guns a blazing. Even here, the fight is over in only a couple of pages, and while Laurence appears to be in danger at one point, Temeraire is quite easily able to save him simple by staying above enemies that cannot fly.
This book is largely about the journey. Unlike another book I reviewed recently, Nod by Adrian Barnes, this journey is not particularly compelling. If the journey itself reads largely as a series of repetitive journal entries, you don’t have much of a story. Novik still writes well, and she is always readable, but what she really had here is a short story at best, perhaps a prologue to the next novel in the series. What she did not have is a novel in and of itself. I understand her motivation: set a novel in each of the more exotic locales around the world (she’s done Africa, China, and central Asia already), and try to get a bit of travelogue integrated into the whole alternate history shtick. I did enjoy the book, but I believe that this is mostly due to revisiting with old friends that I hadn’t seen in some time. Someone reading through from the beginning of the series is going to find this books something of a disappointment, and potentially a roadblock to getting through to the rest of the series. I’m going to take a break from the books to do some other reading first, but I will get to the other two fairly soon, and I’ll be sure to post my thoughts here when I do.
Steve’s Grade: C
While I still love the premise of the series and find Novik’s writing very readable, Tongues of Serpents falls short of the high standards already set in this series, and fails to transport this reader.
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