Black Powder War: the long way to a small angry dragon

Book cover: Black Powder War - Naomi Novik (a red dragon coiled about a glass bauble holding a field gun)Temeraire and Laurence are becalmed in Macau when new orders arrive, bidding them hasten to Istanbul to collect much-needed eggs. Our boys have a desperate choice: to dare the dangerous overland route or go by sea and risk arriving months too late for the hatching. Will they make it in time?

I’ve once again left it much too long to write this review, as life overtook intentions over the summer. If Throne of Jade was a book notable for its slow pace, Black Powder War goes one further in proving that pacing really isn’t a major concern when you can rely on dragons to hold this reader’s interest.

The novel opens with a haunting scene: walking in a moonlit garden, Laurence witnesses the dishonourable burial of Prince Yongxing. His grave may be unmarked, but his passing is deeply mourned by his Celestial companion, Lien. It’s an intensely powerful scene, haunted by the music and laughter of uncaring revellers in the pavilion behind them. Laurence is compassionate enough to feel a moment of pity for the white dragon, but wisely decides not to intrude on her grief.

It should come as no surprise that she harbours a grudge, but part of the joy of this novel was in how successfully Novik distracted me from it. Repeatedly. So with a Star Wars wipe, we move rapidly on to Macau harbour, where the Allegiance lies becalmed and we can be introduced to one of the major threads of the novel: Temeraire’s determination to improve the lot of European dragons and Laurence’s fear that his beloved partner will be sorely disappointed. Before the brooding can entirely consume him, a fire breaks out and we are plunged into nail-biting action.

This sets the template for the novel: a scene is set; Laurence frets about something; there’s an opportunity for some inappropriate shipping (we ❤ #Willby) or humour – and then some unexpected mayhem. Like Throne of Jade, this is once again an episodic travelogue, but the decision to chance the Silk Road is an opportunity to explore the world rather than delve into politics and personal relationships at sea. Needless to say, this delivers epic world-building, with feral dragons, marauding tribes, the glories of imperial Istanbul and eventually a depressingly realistic depiction of the Prussian war (mud, marching and disappointments).

Without wanting to give too much away, while this novel covers a lot of ground, it does so in looping meanders from a plot perspective, lending it the feel of treading water. The questions of Tharkay the guide’s trustworthiness; Laurence’s fears for Temeraire’s happiness in England; and how far Lien will go in her appetite for vengeance are all revisited regularly without necessarily making much progress until the very end.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey to Istanbul (while doing my share of yelling at Will Laurence for his attitudes to Tharkay), and was mostly intrigued by the unexpected political machinations when we got there (diplomacy: never a strong point for our Captain or his dragon). However, once mired in the Turkish court, the pace slowed considerably, although thankfully leavened by some excellent set-pieces.

Moving on to Prussia, I have to take my hat off to Naomi Novik so accurately capturing the nightmare of a 19th century land war – all marching and miscommunication. The painstaking retelling of the War of the Fourth Coalition is remarkable for its depressing unflinching realism and petty-minded politics. Nonetheless, it is a necessary rather than enjoyable segment that spends a long while going nowhere before finally unleashing Napoleon’s innovations in draconic warfare and delivering an excellent climax.

As usual, there’s enormous delight to be had in the relationship between Will and Temeraire (and Will and Granby); and in Will’s regular need to (happily successfully) confront long-held prejudices. Still, it was the addition of two fabulous young ladies that rescued the second half of the book for me: the intrepid Sara Maden in Istanbul (although what became of her? Will we see her again in future?), and the feisty young fire-breathing dragonet who – inevitably – hatches at the worst possible time.

As it was, the slow pace makes this my least favourite instalment to date, but I’m desperately excited to be continuing the read-along shortly – not least because I hope we’ll see a lot more of Tharkay, Sara Maden (please please please) and my favourite new Iskierka (hallo smol angry dragon. You so fierce, you make everything better).


Live reactions as we read are captured on Storify thanks as ever to @effingrainbow.

The Temeraire live tweet-along continues on Sunday 7th September at 9pm BST with #EmpireofIvory