Friday, May 1, 2020

Birthday Review: Naomi Novik's first three Temeraire books, plus some short fiction

Naomi Novik was born on the last day of April, so in honor of her birthday, here are some reviews I have done of her (excellent) work, the first a review of the first three Temeraire novels from Black Gate, and then a few reviews of short fiction for Locus.

His Majesty's Dragon/Throne of Jade/Black Powder War
by Naomi Novik. Del Rey, $7.50 each (384/432/400p)
ISBNS: 0345481283 / 0345481291 / 0345481305
March/April/May 2006.

A Review by Rich Horton (Black Gate, Spring 2007)

These three books are the first of a potentially open-ended series [it did, of course, eventually come to completion -- the first 8 covers are shown here, the ninth book, League of Dragons, came out in 2016, and there is also a story collection], set during the Napoleonic Wars in an alternate fantastical past: almost exactly like our history but with dragons. The obvious comparison is with Patrick O'Brian, and it is a high compliment indeed to say that the books are not entirely unworthy of such company as O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars (which some consider the best historical novel series ever.) I found Novik's books extremely enjoyable reading, and I look forward to many further volumes. Del Rey's interesting publishing strategy, issuing three books in very quick succession, has evidently garnered Novik and the books well-deserved sales and public attention.

It should be noted that the novels are indeed true series novels: each concluding its sub-story satisfyingly enough, but also advancing an overall arc. The series opens with Captain Will Laurence of the English Navy capturing a French ship, on which there is a dragon egg. When dragons hatch they are "harnessed" by a person who will be their constant companion: usually an aviator, but no such candidate being available the man chosen is Laurence himself. This means the end of his promising Naval career, and an unconventional life as one of the rather raffish Aerial Corps, but the friendship of the dragon, a very unusual specimen he names Temeraire, proves to be ample compensation. His Majesty's Dragon (titled Temeraire in the UK) details the training of Laurence and Temeraire, complete with some internal conflicts and adjustments, leading to their first battles and the revelation of Temeraire's particularly special war-fighting power, unique to his variety of extremely rare dragon. This variety, it transpires, is the Chinese Celestial, usually reserved to be companions of the Chinese Imperial Family.

In Throne of Jade the Chinese protest the British capture of Temeraire (who had been intended as a gift for Napoleon), and the spineless Foreign Office sends Laurence, Temeraire, and crew to China, hoping to negotiate better trading rights in exchange for returning this valuable dragon. But while Temeraire enjoys China, in particular the special privileges -- or, perhaps, ordinary rights that all intelligent creatures ought to enjoy -- given dragons there, he refuses to be separated from Laurence. Also, it turns out there is some political turmoil in China -- the resolution of which leads also to an accommodation that allows Laurence and Temeraire to remain together.

Black Powder War is the story of their desperate land journey first to Istanbul, to collect three more dragon eggs the British have bought from the Turks, then through war-torn Europe, where they learn that Napoleon has a new Celestial -- one who has cause to hate Laurence, Temeraire, and by extension England.

The first book is nearly an unalloyed delight (save the slightly unprepared-for nature of the end), the second is enjoyable but a step down, perhaps a bit too slow; and the third ranks pretty much with the second, though the ending is surprising and quite moving. The series as a whole promises to continue to be very fun reading, with a nicely set up tension between the necessity of defeating Napoleon and the cause of "Dragon's Rights", which Temeraire has at last persuaded Laurence is both morally and practically essential. Both lead characters are engaging and well-depicted, the prose is nicely handled with a sound period flavor, the fantastical elements are not terribly plausible (nor necessarily consistent) but they (draconic characteristics and types, basically) are nicely imagined.  Recommended.

Review of Fast Ships, Black Sails (Locus, December 2008)

One coup the VanderMeers managed was to land a novelette from Naomi Novik. (To my knowledge she has only published two other short stories, both quite short, at her website.) “Araminta; or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake” is one of the best pieces in this book. It’s not a Temeraire story -- it is a gender-bending tale of a rather tomboyish girl of a noble family sent by sea to marry the young man her parents have chosen. When pirates attack her ship, she resorts to a special magical protection she has been given … the results are entertaining and in the end Araminta gets the chance to make her own choices for her future, choices that not too surprisingly involve adventure and piracy.

Review of Warriors (Locus, May 2010)

Naomi Novik shows up with her first straight SF story (that I know of), “Seven Years From Home”, about a diplomat sent to an alien planet, charged with mediating somehow between two human variant groups, one of which has colonized one continent by altering themselves to blend in with the established ecology, the other of which, latecomers, are bent on terraforming the planet, and having conquered their continent are now proceeding to the other. The diplomat, not surprisingly, goes native (as it were), only to become complicit in what she can’t help seeing a terrible crime. The story has some intriguing elements, but doesn’t really convince. But it’s nice to see Novik continue to extend her range – she is serving notice that she won’t be tied to Temeraire for her whole career.

Review of Naked City (Locus, August 2011)

More lighthearted are stories like Naomi Novik’s “Priced to Sell”, about various problems a real estate agent deals with in selling to the magical community – slight, to be sure, but fun.

Locus, January 2017

One of my favorite stories in The Starlit Wood is Naomi Novik’s “Spinning Silver”. As one might guess, Rumpelstiltskin in the base story. The conceit is that instead of spinning straw into gold, a moneylender might be seen as spinning silver (a small amount of money) into a larger amount (gold). The narrator is the daughter of a poor village moneylender, too kindly to make a living. The daughter, however, has learned to harden her heart to her father’s clients’ troubles – which often enough are invented anyway – and under her stewardship the family has prospered – but at what cost? Especially when a fairy creature called the Staryk learns of her abilities, and insists that she spin his silver into gold. The mechanism she uses is clever, and the expected complications ensue, especially when the local Duke is involved. Novik very effectively layers the story with meaning – most notably the status of the moneylenders, who are (of course) Jewish – which points as well to a perhaps sometimes missed element of Rumpelstiltskin’s traditional portrayal. As with many of the stories in this book (and indeed in most contemporary fairy tale versions) the agency or lack thereof of the female characters is also central, and quite matter of factly and honestly treated.

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