Friday, 9 August 2013

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik is the seventh book in the Temeraire series. Yes, seventh. The series started with Temeraire (in the UK/ANZ, but published as His Majesty's Dragon in the US) and is set during the time of the Napoleonic wars, in an alternate universe where dragons exist, are intelligent and team up with humans.
Former Aerial Corps captain Will Laurence and his faithful dragon, Temeraire, have been put out to pasture in Australia—and it seems their part in the war has ended just when they are needed most. The French have invaded Spain, forged an alliance with Africa’s powerful Tswana empire, and brought revolution to Brazil. With Britain’s last desperate hope of defeating Napoleon in peril, the government that sidelined Laurence swiftly offers to reinstate him, convinced that he’s the best man to enter the fray and negotiate peace. So the pair embark for Brazil, only to meet with a string of unmitigated disasters that forces them to make an unexpected landing in the hostile territory of the Incan empire. With the success of the mission balanced on a razor’s edge, an old enemy appears and threatens to tip the scales toward ruin. Yet even in the midst of disaster, opportunity may lurk—for one bold enough to grasp it.
It's been around three years since I read the sixth book in the series, Tongues of Serpents (I had been foolishly waiting first for an Australian edition then, when I realised it wasn't coming, the US paperback, since hardcovers are silly and more expensive). As a result, I was a bit foggy on some of the characters. Particularly the one which I think we haven't seen much of since book 2 (Throne of Jade) which I read around when it came out in 2006. Honestly, a little bit more back story, particularly for the aforementioned character, Hammond, would have been nice. That said, I wasn't lost per se, there was just a lot of "who is this guy again, and why do I care?" at the start.

From memory, I think some of the Temeraire books can be read as standalones or out of order (albeit with sustained spoilers for earlier books), but the same cannot be said for Crucible of Gold. Not so much because the plot relies very heavily on previous events, but because there were a lot of slow bits, and it was only my caring about the characters that made me keep picking it up to continue reading. As it was, it almost took me two weeks to get through it (a large part of the reason blogging's been slow, sorry) and I got distracted by two other books in the meantime.

The prose, which I remember enjoying in the earlier books, did not help with the pacing. It's written in a sort of early nineteenth century style with lots of archaic words and phrases and a restraint which reflects Laurence's stiff upper-lip. (Although, actually, Laurence is rather liberal for the time period.) I found some of the action scenes were duller than they could have been (I only really found one of them exciting and that was, arguably, the least consequential).

By contrast, there were several hilarious sections, which were easily my favourites. The humour was mostly situational, often arising from the dragons' misunderstandings of human politicking. I also enjoyed the development whereby Laurence (and Granby) realised what we readers have known for some time now; that they do not own their dragons, their dragons own them. Although I did find it mildly problematic that it was Incan and Tswanan (southern African) people who had more of a sense of belonging to their dragons, compared with the European attitudes of owning dragons and commanding them like ships (and the Chinese attitude of treating them as equal). On the other hand, I did feel that once we learnt more about the former cultures, it turned out to be less troubling than it appeared on the surface. But your mileage may vary.

On an entirely different note, after reading some article about queer representation in books, I was wracking my brain, trying to remember if a gay character had appeared in earlier books (I think not?), and then, not two pages later, someone came out as gay in Crucible of Gold. I shan't reveal whom, but I will say a big fuss was not made, aside from the come-out-ee being surprised and having to come to terms with it. And of course the sheer taboo for the time period was a big factor. I will be quite interested to see if Novik does anything further with the information in the last two books.

Crucible of Gold contains tragedy, adventure, hilarity and dragons. And of course several beloved characters from earlier books. I definitely don't suggest starting from this book if you haven't read any of Novik's work before. However, I definitely recommend the Temeraire series as a whole to all readers of historic fantasy. As well as fighting the Napoleonic Wars, the series takes Temeraire and Laurence across five continents (not Antarctica and not North America), reimagined in the presence of dragons. To readers who have read the earlier books in the series, this isn't the best of the bunch, but I still recommend reading it, if only for a few significant events that take place. (And really, if you've gotten this far, don't you want to push through to the end?)

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012, Del Rey
Series: Temeraire, book 7 of 9
Format read: Paper! Paperback!
Source: US edition ordered off Book Depository since only the first 6 are available in the UK/ANZ :-/

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