Empire of Ivory: doing the right things

Book cover: Empire of Ivory - Naomi Novik (UK hardcover, stylised woodcut design of dragons, jungle plants and African animals)Laurence and Temeraire return home to discover that British dragons are dying of a fatal illness. The Aerial Corps is grounded, leaving the country exposed to Napoleon and Lien. A belated insight dispatches the boys and their ailing friends to Africa in the hope of finding a cure – but nobody has ever returned from an expedition to the interior…

This is the book where some people realise that this series may not be about the things they thought it was about. I’ve seen complaints that Empire of Ivory lacks a coherent plot and has no structure; we must have read different books. It’s just that this one – even less than its predecessors – isn’t a book about the War. Or even, really, dragons. But it might be my favourite one to date.

From where I’ve sat, none of these books have been about the War, partly because I’m not particularly interested in military fiction (even with dragons) so I’ve tended to ignore those bits. For me, these books have always been about the battle for Will Laurence’s heart and soul as his association with Temeraire and the Aerial Corps continually forces him to examine his prejudices.

Looked at from this perspective, it’s hard not to consider Empire of Ivory as both the logical next step and a bridging novel, throwing everything up in the air to set up the next arc in the series. Where the first three books have established beyond question the relationship between Will and Temeraire and set the adjusted context of the draconic Napoleonic Wars, they have also revolved around loyalty to King and Country. Will has done almost everything under orders (even if the execution of those orders has been heavily influenced by his love for Temeraire).

Empire of Ivory spells out the conflict between Will’s duty to his country and his love for his companion, and asks him to make hard decisions. There was a key moment about three-quarters of the way through where I tweeted in exasperation that “I secretly dream of the day Will Laurence is less fettered by his upbringing. Aim to misbehave, sir” when Will stopped short of doing what I suspect every modern reader (not to mention Temeraire) was hoping he would.

I had no idea that the rest of the novel would revolve around precisely that day, or the devastating personal price it appears it will exact.

All of this plays out through the usual episodic adventure: the desperate flight from Prussia; a lonely defence of the Channel in an attempt to hide the sad state of British dragondom; an unlikely political interlude; the expedition to Africa in search of a cure (about which I shall say very little because spoilers, but oh my word this novel is worth reading for the eponymous empire of the Tswana alone, not to mention the glorious assault on colonialism); and the terrible dilemma that awaits our boys on their return home.

We also – finally – get ample page time for the women of the Aerial Corps, with Jane Roland newly-promoted to Admiral and Catherine Harcourt actually along for the adventure to Africa. When Will’s father leaps to the erroneous conclusion (hey, that’s where Will got that trait from) that Emily is his bastard daughter, all the pieces are in play to air pretty much every aspect of the disconnect between Will’s traditional attitudes and his life in the Aerial Corps as an entertaining series of inter-linked subplots (I have strong views on the necessity of marriage, period-appropriate social prudery or no, so this was one long glee ride for me once I stopped yelling at Will’s sensibilities).

With personal dilemmas, sexual politics, colonialism, racism, slavery and a side helping of the untrustworthiness of politicians all packed in, it’s a lot to tackle in one volume (although the narrative never feels over-burdened by its themes). However, when I attempted to write up some of my feelings about this adventure, it resulted in epic flailing at length.

For the purpose of keeping this review brief, let’s just say that Empire of Ivory shares the Temeraire traits of a slow-building plot and a rush of blood at the climax, and is back to the levels of emotional engagement that made Throne of Jade such a joy – with even fewer quiet moments for feelings to recover. OH MY WORD THE FEELINGS. Ahem.

In the ongoing conflicts between Will’s shifting sympathies and his perceived duty, it was inevitable that we’d reach a point where he had to pick a side. It still took me by delighted surprise when it happened – and leaves me on the edge of my seat, deeply grateful that I have the next book at hand to find out what happens next.


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

The Temeraire livetweet-along continues on Saturday 1st October at 9pm BST with #VictoryofEagles