Temeraire in China
By Cheryl Morgan
One of the problems with writing a sequel to a very successful genre novel is that you have probably used up most of your surprises. A well-designed trilogy can be crafted so as to allow the mysteries to be leaked out slowly over the full length of the work. But if instead you are writing the first book of what might become a lengthy series you pretty much have to set the scene fairly thoroughly in book one, and that means nothing new to put in book two.
This may be why Naomi Novik decided use book two of her Temeraire series to resolve the Chinese problem immediately, rather than have it hanging over Temeraire and Laurence until Napoleon had been dealt with. It takes the characters well away from the hurly burly of Napoleonic warfare and introduces a whole new "alien" landscape in the form of Imperial China. Consequently Throne of Jade is a very different book to Temeraire, and reader interest is maintained.
Just as a quick reminder, we learned in the first book that Temeraire is a Chinese dragon of the Celestial breed normally reserved for the personal use of the Imperial Family. He had been intended as a gift for the Emperor Napoleon, but having been egg-napped on the high seas by a British frigate he ended up being impressed by Captain William Laurence. The two quickly prove their worth in battle, but no one expects the Chinese to be happy about this turn of events, and so it proves.
At the beginning of Throne of Jade we learn that a deputation has arrived in London from China. Led by the Emperor’s brother, no less, they are demanding the immediate return of Temeraire to his homeland. Concerned that the Chinese might ally themselves more closely with Napoleon, and possibly even launch an attack on Russia, Mr. Pitt and the Admiralty decide to accede to the Chinese demands. Temeraire, of course, refuses to go anywhere without Laurence, so the two of them end up on a transport ship taking the long journey by sea to the Far East.
Once again Novik shows a deft touch in her handling of the alternate world. She brings in salient contemporary detail, such as noting the existence of the slave trade as they pass West Africa. We learn that Laurence’s father, Lord Allendale, is a political ally of Wilberforce — something of a surprise given his crusty attitudes towards dragonriders. Then there is the whole matter of Darkest Africa. In a world where dragons exist, what strange creatures might menace Temeraire and his human friends on their journey?
Traveling with them are Prince Yongxing and the Chinese delegation, plus Mr. Hammond, a diplomat assigned to the mission by the British Government. Laurence is very clearly completely out of his depth in political matters, and he and Hammond are very quickly at loggerheads. The Chinese, meanwhile, seek to find ways to come between Temeraire and his rider so as to persuade the dragon to leave the unworthy Englishman behind. But some cross-cultural fertilization does take place and by the time the party reaches China a certain amount of mutual respect has been established. Also a certain amount of amusement is caused along the way by highly spiced food.
If I have a criticism of the book it is that I think Novik was too hands off with famous people in the early stages. I liked the way she kept Temeraire and Nelson apart in the first book, but the arrival of the Chinese delegation seems to be a little too high-powered to be left to Admiralty flunkies as Novik portrays it. Pitt may have had other things on his mind, but I would have expected Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of War, to have taken an interest, or at least to have been mentioned.
However, as we all know, these books are not really about humans. The narrative only really comes to life when the four-legged star of the show is on stage. Temeraire is as cute and lovable as ever. He gets a girlfriend, and the Chinese fill his head full of all sorts of interesting ideas about dragon rights that have some of the humans muttering about Jacobin dragons. It is all great entertainment, and the good news is that book three is only a month away. I have it sitting by me as I type. Which means I need to stop writing and get reading.