Friday, October 19, 2007

Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

The fourth "Temeraire" book is the most obviously influenced by Patrick O'Brian of the series so far -- so much so, I fear, that the influence has been the cause of a lot of the less-than-glowing fan reaction to Empire of Ivory.

I've seen Internet reviewers complaining that Empire spends too much time "describing scenery" (instead of describing big dragon-fights, I suppose) and that the plot stops and starts. It is true that scenery is described in detail, and that the plot is not a headlong rush from beginning to end. The difference between those reviewers and myself is that I believe a measured pace and well-chosen words are a positive thing, not a negative. (Here is where I could have inserted a lament about readers brought up entirely on the one-damn-thing-right-after-another school of epic fantasy, and how they can't appreciate a plot that actually changes pace to match the actions. But I thought better of it.)

I can imagine that readers unfamiliar with O'Brian's masterful "Aubrey & Maturin" novels (the first one is Master and Commander; if you haven't read them, there is not a moment to be lost in starting) wouldn't recognize Novik's homages to the master's work, but I'd hope that they could appreciate that life is not a headlong rush, and so a novel does not need to be one, either. Like O'Brian's series, Empire of Ivory begins and ends in the middle of busy lives; everything is not completely explained at either end, but the novel in between still is a novel, and not a sausage-slice of a longer story. Novik also uses O'Brian's often leisurely pace as a guide, though she never lets the background plot to ever drop out of view, as O'Brian did regularly, often for a whole novel at a time -- a writer in a modern genre does not, it seems, have the freedom of a historical novelist.

Empire of Ivory begins in the middle of action, very soon after the end of the previous novel, Black Powder War. The dragon Temeraire and his crew are shepherding a group of feral dragons from central Asia (and some Prussian soldiers, rescued from grave defeat at the hands of Napoleon's armies) to England, and battling fierce French opposition. They finally arrive on friendly soil to find that the "cold" that beset Temeraire in the second book, Throne of Jade, is a far more virulent disease than they had thought -- and, while they were elsewhere, that disease has infected nearly every dragon in England, and killed many of them.

Meanwhile, Napoleon is massing his forces for a possible cross-Channel invasion. So Temeraire, as the only healthy large dragon left to the British, is vitally necessary for the defense of the realm. But, perhaps, he's also vitally necessary to the task of finding whatever it was that cured him -- because, if the cure can't be extended to other English dragons, there's no chance of saving the nation.

I had a thought, early on, of the "of course they'll do X" type, but I filed that thought away when nothing along those lines was mentioned. Then, suddenly, the issue popped up near the very end of the book -- and Jack Aubrey Will Laurence took what I thought was a somewhat ahistoric position on the issue. (It's not out of character for him, but that just goes to show how ahistoric he's getting in general.) It makes for good drama, I suppose, but this is not just a war, but a very bloody, very long, pre-modern war, and such scruples are a great luxury. But that's a minor point.

The publisher's teaser in the back gives away the fact that Napoleon will invade in the next book (which may be a foregone conclusion, but, still, you don't say it that bluntly). I'll be back for that one, even if I suspect that it will be more conventional and less in the spirit of O'Brian than this one. The Temeraire books are fine entertainments, good novels steeped in a world that is not our own and told in lively semi-period language. There should be much more fantasy like this; more books which aren't simply modern people in dress-up clothes gathering their various Plot Coupons.


Ran said...

Excellent review. I was a bit concerned about the reviews I was reading before, and was trying to figure out what was really in play. I'll definitely be keeping in mind Aubrey & Maturin here, and the fact that it is absolutely true that these days fantasy readers except very punchy epics.

There seems to have been a definite rise in the number of fantasy fans who don't admire and enjoy LotR in the last ten years, just from anecdotal evidence, and I think that's connected to reader expectations on pacing in their fantasy. I've been involved in ASoIaF fandom boards for 10 years now, and I recall few arguments about LotR's quality back in 1997, but today hardly a month goes by without someone saying they hate LotR (or they hate the books, but like the movies). There's still a massive, built-in audience, but LotR is probably less appealing to new readers than it once was.

Molly Moloney said...

Okay, a spoiler or two of the book you're discussing isn't something I'd be terribly shocked by. But a spoiler for the NEXT book? That seems a bit much!

p.s. I think it was one of your reviews that first turned me on to Novik's books, so thanks for that!

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