The second half of the voyage to Beijing is as eventful as the first, with sickness, sea serpents and suspected assassins to contend with. But no matter how hard Yongxing tries, there’s no separating our boys…
We rejoin the Allegiance in Capetown, being counselled to wait for the winds or risk being blown off course. Hammond is worried Yongxing will brook no delay; Riley is confident his big boat can cope with whatever the weather throws at him. I’m not worried. Are you worried? Obviously this will go wrong.
Temeraire is now firmly in the grip of Volly’s cold (or Maximus’s cold, as the big Muskedragon appears to be Patient Zero) and feeling very sorry for himself. It was difficult to take this as seriously as I probably should have done, in part because of Dr Keynes’s brusque bedside manner, and partly because we mostly see him snotty and whinging.
Needless to say, Will is concerned enough for everyone and soon asks Yongxing’s chefs whether they can start preparing Temeraire’s meals (mirroring his own intervention with Liu Bao’s illness a few weeks earlier). Now we all know there’s nothing better than spicy takeaway to sort out a cold, but it’s pretty intrepid stuff for 1806! Temeraire is soon feeling much better, and rapidly develops quite the palate for Chinese cuisine.
…he also, unless I’m greatly mistaken, has an unintentional brush with narcotics when mushrooms supplied by helpful locals turn out to have an interesting range of side effects. Will is far too straight-laced to understand what’s going on, but a dopey dragon who loves the world and wants to give him a big hug is suggestive. Thankfully, he doesn’t get a hangover.
As soon as Temeraire is on the mend, the Allegiance sets sail and the weather sets in. Of course the weather sets in. It was going to be fiiiiiiiine, and a storm at sea is the perfect opportunity for a properly exciting action sequence (challenge of the week: stop an enormous dragon from falling off a pitching ship!) and for our Chinese assassin to have another go. I don’t quite know what to make of Feng Li. He’s a terrible assassin. Practically pantomime clumsy. It’s also impossible to tell whether he’s under orders or has taken the idea into his head that his Prince would appreciate it and is trying to curry favour. Regardless: he is at a distinct disadvantage against an experienced naval officer in the teeth of a typhoon.
Needless to say, Hammond has no interest in investigating the odd turn of events. The Prince is above suspicion and certainly can’t be questioned. It is unthinkable… Unless you’re a protective dragon buddy. Yongxing’s hours of chitchat and poetry don’t deter Temeraire from suggesting he solves the problem in a final sort of way, much to Will’s horror, who – as usual – invokes sentiments about duty and what’s good for the country. Given recent events, Temeraire’s subsequent comments on politics and the Government are all a bit close to the bone.
Just when it looks like it’s safe to go sealing, the ship is attacked – by a sea
dragon serpent. I have no shame in loving every sea-faring trope Naomi Novik has packed into this book, because she does so with flair: the sailors take it in their stride, grab axes and go for it with a will. However, monster-bashing is not what this sequence is about. Seeing the crew are losing the battle, Temeraire intervenes, trying first to reason with the serpent and ultimately killing her when he can’t communicate. The act is as devastating for him as his destruction of the French warship was for the sailors – and his discomfort as puzzling to them as theirs was to him. This really is a novel of mirrors, which makes me very excited to reach China and see how it reflects the situation in England.
Temeraire’s unhappiness provokes a revealing conversation with Will: Temeraire has (predictably) been fretting about slavery, and whether his status in England is that different to that of a slave. Although Will tries to reassure him, he can’t actually confirm that Temeraire is truly free to go where he likes and do as he wishes and they are both left with plenty to think about. This reader is happy to bet that emancipation – of people and dragons – will be a recurring theme in the future. Similarly, musings on what being civilised means and the fate of feral dragons…
Speaking of civilised, Yongxing regaled Temeraire with tales of dragon life in China earlier in the voyage, but we only get to discover it with Will once the Allegiance finally makes safe harbour. In Macao, Temeraire’s exalted status is immediately obvious as the local population rush to seek the Celestial’s blessing. It’s a bit overwhelming for a humble young dragon from abroad, and eye-opening for the British.
More familiar are the local British marines and commanders, whose stiff-necked counsel is far more welcome to Will than Hammond’s slippery foreign policy. I don’t honestly think it’s possible to impress the Chinese, so Hammond’s appeasement is probably a better way to get the concessions he wants, but it’s hard not to sympathise with officers who have been left stewing unsupported in the tropics after Yongxing seized their ships by Imperial edict.
Still, Will’s stay in China is likely to be short-lived if he doesn’t kowtow at Court.
WIth half the officers struck down with malaria, Will has been moonlighting as a naval officer again, but there’s no resisting an urgent summons to the capital. The sick will be left aboard, and permission is negotiated for a handful of crew (including Hammond, naturally) to accompany Will and Temeraire overland. I was delighted to find this included Roland; I had a heart-in-mouth moment of no you can’t leave her behind (for at least half the wrong reasons) and was delighted when Will was urged to take the children along. Yay! Show them the world, Will!
Naturally, he also takes his new best buddy John Granby. Yes, John. They’re on first name terms now – quite the turnaround from their early meetings. It’s a delight watching their relationship grow ever stronger. Will relies on John for advice and support, John has the freedom to be the firebrand and say what’s in Will’s heart when Will knows he must take a more moderate line. Of course we’re shipping them #TeamWillby 💚
We end the week journeying through China, meeting exciting new breeds of dragon and getting a glimpse of their position within Chinese society. After Temeraire’s despair over his position being little better than that of chattel in Britain, we see the respect dragonkind are accorded here. Chinese dragons are literate, can make purchases (probably from the Emperor’s coffers, but on their own account), have beautiful buildings to rest in rather than weather-lashed coverts, and are held in high esteem. Not all have aviators, some being too small, but all have the pride of being in the Emperor’s service.
…but some of the most fascinating moments come from the Chinese aviators. We glimpse one female aviator naked and chiding her dragon with a familiar rough affection; but we also discover that Yongxing has a dragon, who he clearly adores. A rare, unlucky albino Celestial. A dragon so rare and so unlucky that his possession of it ruled him out from being Emperor.
So many pennies dropping at once.
Here’s the thing that intrigues me: Yongxing chose his dragon, not vice versa, which is the exact opposite to England. Also, he chose a dragon he knew would keep him off the throne, rather than permitting her to be disgraced by being sent abroad. Is it his ambition to sit the throne? Was it a height he never aspired to and wanted to rule himself out of? Exactly what is his relationship with his brother like? Is he simply so careful of Chinese pride that he will sacrifice anything to keep his vision of it intact? Does the Emperor even know he went after Temeraire?
…but focusing back on our heroes, if Yongxing intervened to prevent his father sending a Celestial to a Mongolian Prince (the albino was considered unlucky, so the gift is at once the highest honour – not only a dragon, but a Celestial – and an insult, as she is sent there so that the bad luck will fall on the Mongols rather than the Chinese), what will he not do to separate Temeraire from Will?
Beyond the double-edged gift to the Prince, I read an implication that being banished to Mongolia was demeaning for Lung Tien Lien herself. Celestials are never sent away from the Imperial family. A Crown Prince intervened to protect Lien; but there was nobody to prevent his brother-Emperor sending Temeraire away.
Like the Mongols, from the French perspective the gift is a massive honour (and a huge military advantage in Napoleon’s case), but now we see a slightly different context. Will it affect how he is received at Court? Was it a punishment or insult to Temeraire and his parents? And if so, what was their disgrace? Or are Temeraire’s parents simply a whole lot more focused on duty than he is? We will see.
Not least because it seems his mother is at Court.
OH MA GAWD I AM HERE FOR THIS IS IT SUNDAY YET IS IT IS IT IS IT?
Our final #ThroneofJade live tweet-along will be on Sunday at 9pm BST.