Tongues of Serpents

Book cover: Tongues of Serpents - Naomi Novik (UK hardcover, stylised woodcut design - dragons, colonial buildings and gum trees)Will Laurence and Temeraire have been banished to Australia to establish new breeding grounds, convicts in all but name. But the colony is mutinous, its Governor in exile, and the continent hazardous, with no obvious opportunities for redemption…

We took a hiatus over Christmas before continuing on to Tongues of Serpents, and I still can’t decide whether that has helped or hindered my reception of this sixth instalment of the Temeraire series. Certainly it meant that I was burning with excitement to get back to our boys’ adventures – not least because this book would explore Australia, a country I love and that would seem to offer some truly interesting opportunities for world-building.

Unfortunately, Tongues of Serpents passes up almost all of them in favour of a slow-burn plot that appears to be mostly interested in setting up the pieces for the next book. We land with a bang in Sydney, where Will is almost immediately embroiled in a brawl – and, unexpectedly, sets to with a will. This is not the Captain Laurence we once knew: captain no longer, resigned to his fate rather than clear on his duty. As we eventually realise, even his once-pressed wardrobe has taken a battering (a sure sign of a terribly unsettled heart).

Caught between aggressive mutineers, a bully of a Governor (Bligh, depicted here in the historically questionable but fictionally popular mould of an authoritarian bastard) and the return of despicable Captain Rankin (BOOOOOO HISS can you guess how much swearing at the page happened during this read?), Will finds himself caught between poor choices: Temeraire can sway the outcome of the mutiny, but backing the wrong horse will leave him in even worse standing with the Admiralty – and Rankin is on hand to ensure they take note.

Will’s orders are to hatch some eggs; after the usual wise words from Tharkay, he heads into the mountains to do just that, with Rankin and his newly-hatched almost-as-annoying-as-its-captain dragonet in tow. A passage through the Blue Mountains is much-desired by colonists and the Service – it’s a safe choice (although I agreed with Temeraire that setting up as a privateer in the Pacific sounded like more fun).

However: hooray for exploring Australia. This is, after all, what I was looking forward to this book for. I wanted Empire of Ivory for Australia – glimpses of another culture, sensitively handled, with appropriately caustic commentary on colonial politics. Imagine my disappointment to discover the Aboriginal Australians made only rare appearances and were given little time to shine on the rare occasions they showed up. Instead, our team – with some ill-tempered convicts along for the ride – are harassed by the climate, the geography and by mysterious man-eating subterranean reptiles they come to call bunyips.

I… found the book lost much of its shine at this point. Fully half of it is given to squabbling and travails in the outback, and while I acknowledge that this – like the Prussian invasion in Black Powder War – is broadly accurate (i.e. white colonists had a very bad time of it when they left the coast), it was dull and frustrating when it wasn’t outright traumatising (there’s a quicksand scene that I defy anyone who has read The Neverending Story to read without twitching). Worse, by the end of the book, we had spent more time with the Chinese than with the Aboriginal Australians …and yes, that ties back into past books and sets up interesting conflict for the climax, but it left a bad taste in my mouth, smacking of unintentional erasure.

It does at least convey that the Aboriginal Australians were many peoples with different languages, well-equipped to survive where even dragon-riding foreigners could not, but we never get to know any and at most three are even named (one of whom – the only woman – doesn’t speak, although she does at least bash a convict over the head when he tries to press his attentions).

It felt like the white man’s experience of 19th century Australia, not least because there was far too little censure of the convicts and their bad attitudes. I found myself cheering on the bunyips as they ate them.

Will, sadly, is labouring under the mental and emotional damage inflicted over the past two books. Certainly he still adores Temeraire, but my earlier quip about his wardrobe is telling – he no longer has the self-esteem or the confidence that buoyed him up in the past. He has had his beliefs stripped from him one by one – and this isn’t a book that helps him rebuild.

Confronted with difficult decisions, Will repeatedly ducks them – and at the climax, makes terrible choices, apparently browbeaten into doing what the Service would want after months of blackmail from Wellington during the invasion. They don’t want you back, Will. Supporting their terrible actions will not restore your honour. I don’t know if I want to slap him or give him a hug and feed him tea.

Granby steps up where he can, but is not always on-page, and is often undermined by Iskierka – who grows more intractable with every passing month, having learnt none of her lessons during the invasion. She really would be better off as an independent pirate dragon terrorising her enemies, given her short temper, tactlessness and delight in bling. But enough about her, it’ll only go to her head.

Unexpectedly – and to my immense satisfaction – it’s Demane who steps up and pushes back against the establishment, claiming an unwanted dragonet (no prizes for guessing that it’s not the hapless runt it first appears) when Rankin and co would have killed it. I like an underdog, and I’d love to see spiky, sensitive Demane go on to achieve Great Things and spit in the Establishment’s eye. I also note his developing relationship with young Roland with interest. I mean, they may be just friends, but she certainly feels free to give him a piece of her mind, and he seems keen to have her approval. Watch this space.

It’s a thin thread of joy to hang a novel on, however, so I’m sad to say that Tongues of Serpents goes down as my least favourite Temeraire novel to date.