Victory of Eagles

Book cover: Victory of Eagles - Naomi Novik (UK hardcover, stylised woodcut design of London and dragons)Captain Will Laurence has been sentenced to death for treason. He will continue to live only so long as Temeraire, banished to the Welsh breeding grounds, continues to cooperate. With British dragondom badly depleted by sickness, Napoleon seizes his chance to invade. Can our boys earn their freedom in defence of King and country?

Things any reader who has been paying attention would know: eagles are Napoleon’s standards. Victory of Eagles is a terribly ill-omened name.

Other things any reader with a passing knowledge of British history should know: who Arthur Wellesley is. While I’m the first to point out I’ve never studied 19th century history (or indeed anything between the Tudors and WWII due to the vagaries of my education), I’ve walked past Apsley House often enough (and *cough* he’s famous enough) that this really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me.

But honestly, I was just here for the dramatic rollercoaster. And what a rollercoaster it is. Having previously admitted to a lack of interest in the more martial elements of this series as well as a general antipathy for the Admiralty, Victory of Eagles could have been one of those novels that had me bouncing between fury and boredom, if it weren’t so relentlessly focused on our heroes’ states of mind.

We open – shockingly – with Temeraire’s point of view, for the first time since the series began. It’s instantly unnerving: even with the knowledge that there’s 9 of these books, I had to reassure myself that I’d have heard on the grapevine if our human protagonist died in between books. Wouldn’t I?

Regardless, it is a delight to finally have Temeraire as our narrator. His inner voice is as passionate (and sometimes naïve) as I expected, but his complete willingness to subjugate himself to whatever the Government demands for Will’s sake is heartbreaking. It’s immediately obvious that the breeding grounds are even more awful than we might have inferred. I’d sort of assumed they would be overseen by the Air Corps, and that the dragons would get some measure of respect and affection; sadly, this isn’t the case.

On the one hand, there’s a sort of bemused respect due to the sort of idiot who thinks you can safely patronise a dragon into doing what you want (up to and including have sex with other dragons; there’s a whole subtext about consent here that left me deeply uncomfortable – Temeraire is being blackmailed into co-operating, so he is not truly consenting). On the other, Lloyd is a patronising idiot, and I longed for Iskierka to swoop in and set him on fire.

We get another glimpse into dragon politics and social structures, which – as we’ve seen previously – can be neatly summed up as size matters. As a Celestial, Temeraire is big but not top of the pile at Pen y Fan, and no-one has any respect for refined Chinese breeding. Having remodelled his cave to make it as comfortable as he can, he finds himself being bullied into giving it up to the enormous Requiescat.

Requiescat is big, but – like Maximus – affable rather than bright. Temeraire is both smart and stubborn, and in an unexpected twist, asks himself how his much-hated aunt Lien would handle the situation. Cue some intriguing character development (left to his own devices, Temeraire is forced to deploy his intelligence in matters beyond theoretical mathematics), and a rapid realisation that it’s not just human-dragon relations that Temeraire is prepared to upset. Our darling is a proper revolutionary (or has a high opinion of himself on account of his intelligence and his privilege in China, depending on your point of view).

In the meantime, Will languishes in a cell on a ship in the Channel. His mental and emotional state are in tatters; when the ship is engaged by a French patrol, it’s hard to tell whether his instinctive response is heroism or a complete lack of care for his life, not least because he’s convinced Temeraire will fly for China once he’s free Will dies. This is only the start of a terrifying downward trajectory for our formerly well-dressed Captain (yes, even his appearance goes by the wayside).

When Temeraire hears that Will has died in the sinking of his ship (he hasn’t), he plunges even further into depression – so much so that it doesn’t even occur to him to leave the country. When Napoleon invades in earnest, landing in Kent and marching on London, he finally stirs himself – and the other dragons of the breeding grounds – to rise in resistance. Sneaky politician that he’s become, he realises that the lure of prizes will tempt them out of what they (in their limited experience) consider relative comfort.

If Temeraire as politician was an interesting development, Temeraire as a commander is fascinating. He rapidly learns how hard it is to herd marauding dragons, and how much he has previously relied on his crew. Pressing Lloyd into unwilling service bartering for cattle as they cross the country (and in fairness, the initially odious little man rather redeems himself along the way), Temeraire and his air wing also kidnap adopt a militia and become the most successful unit in the country.

Hilariously, nobody realises that they’re dragons – the Admirals and Generals being small-minded are determined to consider dragons ‘mere’ animals. All assume a militiaman is masterminding the whole thing. Watching the reality dawn on them as Temeraire accepts his unintentionally-bestowed rank and later demands concessions (why shouldn’t dragons receive pay? And a vote? And why should only dragons with captains lay claim to prizes?) is sheer delight. So is watching Temeraire shoulder the burden of duty – including responsibility for not only the successes but the misdemeanours of those under his command (and Iskierka is under his command, so these aren’t minor). Watching General Wellesley (*cough* *shuffle* yes the Duke of Wellington to be, obviously *cough*) negotiate with, bully and reprimand him is fascinating, although I remained highly suspicious of the General’s ultimate intentions.

Because as much as anything, Victory of Eagles is about the loss of innocence. Temeraire is brought painfully face to face with the full consequences of his actions at the end of Empire of Ivory. Will has not only been sentenced to death, but both he and Temeraire are shunned by large sections of their former comrades, and Temeraire slowly realises it has also cost Will his wealth. It’s hard to tell which stings more – the wound to his pride or the wound to his hoarding instincts. Either way, he can’t deny it’s entirely his doing; that Will doesn’t blame him for a moment doesn’t lessen his guilty conscience.

Will, meanwhile, firmly believes he has earned his death sentence. While it’s still possible to rouse his temper (largely by insulting Temeraire), for the most part he accepts everything that is thrown at him – and, as per the defence of his prison ship, throws himself into anything hazardous. While this results in exciting and dangerous schemes, I spent much of the novel chewing my nails with worry for his mental health, and Temeraire eventually joined me (when he realised that Will has lost his hoard treasure savings).

By the final act, I was terrified that Captain Laurence would do something really stupid (and not in a good way). Thankfully, Tharkay – in his now well-established recurring role of timely saviour – puts in an appearance to set him straight before the final battle. While the relationship between Will and Temeraire has always taken centre stage, the deepening respect between Will and Tharkay is a thing of beauty (and, for this tweet-along at least, much shipping).

Victory of Eagles is a rollercoaster from start to finish, an exhilarating dish of politics, missions behind enemy lines, all-out war and devastating personal journeys. Along the way, there’s plenty of diverting sass from Iskierka (honestly, even I wanted to spank her) and a marvellous new addition to the supporting cast in the shape of cowardly genius Perscitia (think Hermione, only nowhere to be seen when trouble breaks out).

Incredibly satisfying.


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

The Temeraire Tweet-along will be on hiatus until the end of the year. We will resume with #TonguesofSerpents in January 2017 if you wish to join in the fun.