Sunday, 25 August 2013

Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik

Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik is the penultimate book in the Temeraire series. I recently reviewed the previous book, Crucible of Gold. This review contains minor spoilers for the earlier books and, in my opinion, the premise of this one is a bit of a spoiler by itself, even though it's the first thing we learn on page one. If you've read the earlier books and want to be surprised, maybe skip this review (enough  to say I enjoyed it), and skip all the blurbs too. The only spoilers for Blood of Tyrants in this review involve historical events that actually happened and thus aren't really spoilers. But you've been warned. The slightly misleading blurb follows:
Shipwrecked and cast ashore in Japan with no memory of Temeraire or his own experiences as an English aviator, Laurence finds himself tangled in deadly political intrigues that threaten not only his own life but England’s already precarious position in the Far East. Age-old enmities and suspicions have turned the entire region into a powder keg ready to erupt at the slightest spark—a spark that Laurence and Temeraire may unwittingly provide, leaving Britain faced with new enemies just when they most desperately need allies instead.

For to the west, another, wider conflagration looms. Napoleon has turned on his former ally, the emperor Alexander of Russia, and is even now leading the largest army the world has ever seen to add that country to his list of conquests. It is there, outside the gates of Moscow, that a reunited Laurence and Temeraire—along with some unexpected allies and old friends—will face their ultimate challenge...and learn whether or not there are stronger ties than memory.

Blood of Tyrants was much more enjoyable than the previous book in the series. It took a different direction and I found that I did not grow tired of it nearly as easily. The beginning is very fresh and different, especially coming to it, as I did, soon after Crucible of Gold. The three parts of the novel are fairly distinct, with part one being set in Japan, part two in China and part three in Russia.

I was quite taken with the Japanese dragons Novik introduced and the way the narrative jumped between Laurence and Temeraire was particularly effective since their stories are quite disparate. It was interesting to see the way yet another culture interacts with dragons. In this case similarly to the Chinese but not identically, partly because the dragons themselves are physically different. There was also a bit of dragon-based historical animosity mentioned between Japan and China, which I would have liked to hear more about. When it came to Laurence sword-fighting with a Japanese character, I thought the way Novik described Laurence's reaction to the difference in English versus Japanese sword techniques believable. Too often I've seen authors get a little too specific about the Japanese techniques in a way that their characters are unlikely to fully process in the heat of battle.

Part two takes us back to China for what I would think of as the main plot of this novel, despite it not directly involving Napoleon at all. Their goal from the end of the previous book was to secure China's allegiance against the French empire and they are faced with some unexpected trials on the journey to achieving this. I felt that the book could easily have ended at the end of part two (perhaps with a little fleshing out, but not much would have been needed), especially given the strong resolutions of the Chinese story lines.

Because then there was the third part. In Russia. With terribly portrayed Russians. Which would not have been so bad if it weren't for the fact that every other piece of American media does the same thing, usually worse. Especially Hollywood. The evil/horrible/pick-a-negative-descriptor Russians is a trope that I am VERY MUCH OVER and would not be sad to never see again. Really. The Cold War is over. It's been over for more than two decades. Not to mention that in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, it hasn't even started. Can you tell I'm angry? Sure, I'm also biased, but that doesn't make my anger less justified. And no, this is not the worst portrayal of Russians in a piece of Western literature, but this camel's back was long ago broken beyond veterinary help. It's also not the only culture Novik hasn't done justice to (the Indigenous Australians in Tongues of Serpents spring immediately to mind) but it's the one that pissed me off personally. The negative portrayal, by the way, involves the brutal (and illogical given the events of earlier books!) treatment of Russian dragons. To the Russian army's detriment, of course. What would be the point if Laurence couldn't be set up to save them in multiple ways?

Also, the one Russian phrase used was both transliterated wrongly (in the sense that it did not follow the standard conventions) and grammatically incorrect. Whoo. (Google Translate, while still grammatically off, does a better job in terms of word choice too, which is worrying.) It's not really an important point, but still.

Ahem. So the last part aside, I quite enjoyed Blood of Tyrants. As the penultimate book, there was some expectation of it setting up the final resolution of the Napoleonic Wars for the last book. Which it did when it ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger. Without knowing exactly what will happen in the last book (I can only assume Napoleon's forces will be significantly diminished by the coming Russian winter, since real life, thus leading to a glorious victory for Laurence and the British and presumably their allies though it's hard to be sure on the last point), I still think Blood of Tyrants would have worked better ending as they leave China, putting the entire Russian part into a single volume, instead of spread across two. It would also have allowed more exposition of those events and, for example, leant more emotional impact to the burning of Moscow, which I found a little underdone.

Anyway, Blood of Tyrants was a much more enjoyable read than Crucible of Gold. Despite my reservations, I look forward to the concluding volume in the Temeraire saga, which will hopefully come out next year (but I couldn't find any announcements). For fans of the series, Blood of Tyrants is a must read. For those who were a bit hesitant to pick it up after Crucible of Gold, I strongly recommend giving Blood of Tyrants a go.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2013, Del Rey (US edition)
Series: Temeraire, book 8 of 9
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher, via NetGalley

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