Thursday, 20 March 2008

Book review: Empire of Ivory

Empire of Ivory
By Naomi Novik
(Harper Voyager - paperback edition 2008)

I said recently that the best ideas are the simple ones. Nothing proves this point more succinctly than Naomi Novik's Temeraire series.

The premise, in case you've somehow managed to avoid the buzz surrounding the series (or been living on Mars), can be described as this: Napoleonic War plus dragons. That's it. Simple, but extremely effective.

The first in the series, His Majesty's Dragon (or simply Temeraire) in the UK) was only published in 2006, and yet barely two years later we're already on to the fourth book in the popular series: Empire of Ivory. Despite managing to produce four books in a relatively short space of time, Novik has commendably managed to not just maintain the standard she set in the first book, but actually improve on it in books two and three.

So the key question; does book four continue this pattern? The novel certainly opens promisingly, right in the thick of the action. These aerial battle sequences are one of the most thrilling aspects of Novik's series; they have a real cinematic quality. You can just imagine, in your mind's eye, these huge dragons swooping and twisting in the air, talons raking, as their human crews cling on for dear life. Wonderful stuff. So it's a disappointment that they don't feature much in Empire of Ivory. In fact, there's not a big aerial battle in the whole novel, which is a profound disappointment. The sense of exhilaration is therefore mostly absent, which is a shame.

Whereas the third book (and the best) in the series - Black Powder War - featured a frenetic final third, it seems that Novik wanted to leave behind the military confrontations for a while and focus on something a little different. The plot for Empire of Ivory therefore follows Laurence, Temeraire and their allies as they travel to Africa to search for a cure for the illness that is spreading rapidly through the ranks of British dragons. It's an interesting idea that allows for more exotic locations and adventure, but the plot is not as strong as that in Black Powder War, or even Throne of Jade. There are one or two surprises, but it lacks the tension and anticipation of the previous books. The last part of the book throws up the most intriguing scenario of the whole novel, but this is crammed into a few pages where much more could have been made of it. Furthermore, the novel's ending is a little abrupt, not to mention leaving an infuriating cliffhanger (which admittedly isn't a bad thing, just irritating as you don't want to have to wait to find out what happens next). The sort of epilogue that follows the novel's end is arguably pointless and you wonder why it was included at all.

Themes that are mooted in the previous books are evaluated in more detail in Empire of Ivory, lending the novel some real depth as we are shown the evils of the slave trade. The points made about the Admiralty's views towards the provision of the dragons (and their snooty attitude to the 'beasts' themselves) can be interpreted, perhaps, as a reflection of the war in Iraq and the fact that the US (and UK) governments are sending in troops without properly equipping them. Perhaps this simply coincidence and I'm looking at it too deeply, but it certainly seemed to reflect this to me. While the Temeraire novels can be read purely on an entertainment level, it's good to have this extra thematic aspect and it certainly adds depth. Including historical characters such as Nelson and Napoleon also helps to establish the setting; one of my criticisms of the first novel in the series is that the setting isn't fleshed out enough. This is not a problem in Empire of Ivory.

Plot aside, Novik's writing flows as well as ever. It's hard to describe, but there's just something about her novels that makes them so damned easy to read. In fact, it's one of the strengths of the series that the books are so accessible. You can plow through one in just a few hours of reading, which is a nice change to getting bogged down in an epic fantasy. Novik just manages to capture the atmosphere of the age so well, and both her writing style, and her dialogue, really fit the mood of the historical period. Her characters always sound like contemporaries would have sounded, rather than speaking like modern people in a historical setting.

As always, it's the dragons that steal the show. Novik has done tremendously well to take such a standard fantasy creature and make it work so well. The relationship between Temeraire and Laurence is by turns heartwarming and humorous, as are the relationships between the dragons themselves. It's notable that the dragons get on with each other generally much better than many of the human characters do, and this plays on the theme of how the dragons are treated by mankind (and how Temeraire thinks they should be treated). Novik has always relied on the youthful naivety of the dragons to lighten the tension with moments of humour, and once more she uses this to good effect, especially when the dragons concoct amusing plans to try and achieve something contradictory to their captains' intentions.

In Empire of Ivory the writing, humour and characterisation are as strong as ever; it's just the plot that lets it down a little. Just one big aerial battle would have rounded things off nicely. Of course, Novik's novels are about a lot more than these impressive sequences. Without them however, you can't help but feel their absence.



T.D. Newton said...

I put the first book into my library queue. All copies of it are checked out in the metro area so it's got to be worth the read.

J.G. Thomas said...

Yeah, the series has really proved popular. The first novel is, in my humble opinion, the weakest. Classic first novel syndrome in many aspects. However, if you like it then you'll definitely like the rest of the series. Each book improves on the last (with the exception of Ivory, not that it's a bad novel of course).