Revealed as a Chinese Celestial, Temeraire has become an international incident: the Chinese have sent a delegation to bring him home, and the Admiralty are minded to agree in the interests of diplomatic relations. Will our boys be separated?
I have made the mistake of waiting too long to write this review, so you may have to put up with some aimless flailing in lieu of considered insight. We rejoin Captain Will Laurence some months after the epic battle for the Channel, and it’s clear from the start that something has gone wrong: he’s in Whitehall, for a start, and unexpectedly uncomfortable in formal dress.
The situation is quickly laid out. The Chinese are so appalled at the news that a Celestial dragon has fallen into foreign hands it was never intended for that they have sent an Imperial Prince halfway around the world to fetch him home. Never mind that they had gifted the egg to Napoleon (and let’s not think too hard about what that might imply), and that it is a legitimate prize of war. The Empire cares not for such petty details. A Celestial never leaves the Imperial family, and the third son of a minor aristocrat has no place being paired with one.
This clash between Empires is one of the fascinating aspects of Throne of Jade: two Empires who each consider themselves superior in influence and civilisation. The difference is that in spite of Britain’s colonial aspirations, they are a much smaller nation on the back foot in the war against Napoleon – and they can’t afford to offend lest China makes formal alliance with the French and invades Russia. China hold all the cards here, and Temeraire is but a single dragon – of course the Admiralty agree to send him back.
The first quarter of the book is devoted to the battle of wills between the Admiralty and the recalcitrant Captain Laurence. Will is horrified by the Admiralty’s approach, not least because they want him to be complicit. There’s no way Will is going to tell his beloved dragonbro that he doesn’t love him any more, so the situation escalates quickly.
It’s impossible to discuss the rest of this book without a minor spoiler: in a sequence of heart-breaking moments (OH MY HEART) and derring-do (OH MY GAWD), the Chinese unbend far enough to suggest that perhaps Will could come to China too. This is probably the best way for him to avoid the court martial hanging over his head, and he wangles a promotion for Lieutenant Riley out of it into the deal. Sorted. The boys will go on an adventure.
The central section of the book relates the months-long sea voyage to China. This is inevitably episodic with relatively little pace, but I loved pretty much every minute. The lull in the proceedings provides ample opportunity to further explore Temeraire’s sociopolitical views and to continue piling the pressure on Anglo-Chinese relations with a series of revelations guaranteed to cause trouble. There’s also moments for grace notes: Temeraire playing with a dinghy like a rubber duck; festivities as the ship crosses the Equator; draconic poetry and the exchange of culinary peace offerings. There’s space for some shipping too, which we (or Lisa, Emma Maree and I, at least) indulged in to our heart’s content as Will and Lieutenant Granby deepen their working relationship – it’s delightful to see how far they’ve come from their first prickly encounter to bosom buddies exchanging confidences and offering much-needed support.
Once the boys arrive in China, it’s clear that many of Will’s preconceptions about foreign countries are misplaced; and that Britain is far from being a leading light in terms of the place of a dragon within society. As a rare Celestial, Temeraire is venerated – but all dragons are far more integrated into Chinese life, and consequently (with one heart-breaking exception thrown in almost as an aside) have much higher living standards. Novik treats us to lush descriptions and rich world-building as the crew journey overland to the capital and make a new – temporary? – home within the royal precincts.
The undercurrents of Chinese politics within the delegation and within the Court itself are fascinating; the descriptions of Chinese dragons are captivating. As tensions grow and Will becomes ever less certain of Temeraire’s loyalty, it also becomes ever less clear who can be trusted and what agenda they are pushing. It’s my favourite sort of fish-out-of-water political context (hey, I grew up reading Shogun) and it is paired here with the searing heartache of a person unsure whether they’re losing the one they love best. If there’s one thing Naomi Novik does well (and there’s not, there’s literally dozens. Scores. Probably hundreds) it’s hitting me in the feels. Once again, my emotions got a damn fine work-out.
Suffice to say I found this second instalment as satisfying as the first, extending the world and the relationships with aplomb. I’m delighted to say I couldn’t guess all the plot twists, and if the knowledge that there’s numerous books left in the series undercut the tension to a certain extent, it didn’t reduce my enjoyment in the slightest. My only criticism is that this second novel is incredibly male-dominated; I very much missed Jane Roland once the boys set sail, and was sad that the lady dragons of China stayed largely off the page for all their influence. I hope for a more balanced community in the next book.
Detailed discussion (with spoilers) in the weekly read-along: Week 1, Week 2 and Week 3 (no week 4 from me, I’m afraid, as the wheels have come off recently in terms of me having time to do regular write-ups).