Book cover: Crucible of Gold - Naomi Novik (a black dragon emblem above a shipwreck in a mountainous bay)Will and Temeraire are roused from their Australian retirement with an offer they can’t refuse: full reinstatement in return for a voyage to Brazil to try and forge a peace between the Portuguese colonies and Napoleon’s imported Tswana shock troops. Can they redeem themselves in the eyes of England?

The boys also needed to restore themselves to the good graces of this reader after the disappointing and distressing Tongues of Serpents, so the pressure was on for Crucible of Gold.

It gets off to a promising start: Will has grown a beard (HELLO SAILOR) and he and Temeraire have a fine line in intimidating the local bunyip population. Unlikely as it seems, cattle ranching suits them. Temeraire has a pavilion well under way, and Will has made his peace with his ghosts, choosing to keep his distance from Sydney.

When Hammond flies in by supercilious Chinese long-distance courier, he comes armed with papers that restore Will to the list. Whatever the Admiralty may think of him, Wellington has decided that if anybody can persuade a pack of unruly dragons to do the right thing, it’s probably Will Laurence. Or maybe he’s thinking of Temeraire. Given they come as a package deal, the detail probably wasn’t important to him.

Will has never been one to let some inner conflict get in the way of some really good guilt. So the fortuitous arrival of a former Lieutenant Ferris – whose career was one of the casualties of Will’s flirtation with treason – seals the deal. We will have Captain Laurence back, and while he’s not permitted to reinstate Lieutenant Ferris, nobody can stop him taking the young man along for the ride. Better yet, the need to get dragons to South America is so acute that Riley has received orders to turn the Allegiance back to Sydney, so Granby, Iskierka, Demane and Kulingile will be coming too. The only sad gap is Tharkay, once again off on East India Company business.

Will wades back into the Corps, reclaims his crew, and promptly decides it’s time to get all fatherly with respect to Emily Roland. The scene in which Will reads Demane the riot act is a gem; not because he disapproves of their budding romance, but because he demands they both behave like gentlemen. In an unlikely follow-up, he engages a chaperone to keep Emily out of trouble, managing to find a recently-widowed lady sufficiently intrepid to agree to jump aboard a dragon transport heading into a war zone. I liked Mrs Pemberton immediately, and fostered great hopes for her contribution.

Unfortunately, Crucible of Gold turned out to be better at fostering great hopes than delivering on them. The first two-thirds built up another cracking travelogue that made the dull pages of Tongues of Serpents seem like a bad dream: after the hard sailing required to weather a South Sea storm, the Allegiance’s convict crew manage to sink her in fair weather and the survivors are rescued by none other than Napoleon’s favourite diplomat de Guignes, en route to the Incan Empire.

Feathered dragons flirting with Iskierka is enough to put Temeraire in a bad mood for the rest of the novel, but he doesn’t have to put up with it for long – de Guignes keeps Mrs Pemberton (but not, oddly, Emily Roland) but maroons the crew to stop them trying to make their own shabby embassy to the Sapa Inca.

Sinking and marooning are soon followed by a full-blooded mutiny (although there’s just enough time for Emily to admit that Demane has asked for her hand in marriage – but romance is complicated in the Corps), making the first half of the novel a heart stopping rollercoaster, albeit one that was starting to feel a little over-familiar.

The second half of the novel moves the action to South America – needless to say the team do make it to Peru under their own steam, and the two embassies do end up going head to head to win an Incan alliance.

Cue some fabulous world-building – a pox-depleted Empire is now largely governed by its dragons, who possessive attitudes to their people look a lot like slavery (but aren’t exactly) – and the emergence of more strong female characters, as dragons remain unparticular about such things and the Sapa Inca turns out to be an Empress, who will only receive female ambassadors (thank heavens for Mrs Pemberton).

You’d think I would be delighted at this point: all the old ingredients are back in the mix. But this in itself is a problem. The first five books expanded the world, but also explored new themes. The political and personal developments came thick and fast, challenging and delighting me. But Crucible of Gold felt… lazy. Cookie cutter, if you will. It has begun to feel like Naomi Novik is padding things out by having adventures in a parade of continents.

At least until Iskierka – who, being both female and a dragon, is welcome to pay court to the Sapa Inca – manages to negotiate an alliance based on her bearing an egg to a certain feathered dragon, and a reluctant Granby becoming consort to the Empress. This could be considered sufficiently high stakes (not least giving the ardent shipping our read-along has indulged in) and ample excuse for a lecture on duty over inclination – but this is where things derail rather badly.

Because Granby’s reluctance is founded in his sexuality. Our John prefers the company of men (cue deep breaths as we wondered whether our ship would come in). If I was disgusted in Will Laurence for supporting the Admiralty at the end of Tongues of Serpents, it was nothing next to my disappointment in how he handled his friend’s confession. Certainly, it could have been worse – he doesn’t repudiate poor Granby, nor does it change their friendship in any way (sigh) – but he does basically tell him to suck it up and marry the girl.

WHAT.

NO.

Given my love for these books grew from the cognitive and emotional leaps made by Will and Temeraire when confronted by unexpected truths, this should have been the big emotional moment that put the gold in the Crucible. Just as Will once put aside his loyalty to his country to commit treason at Temeraire’s request, this was his opportunity to put aside his god-damned sense of duty to stand by his friend and tell him it was okay to say no. To encourage John to tell his pushy fire-breather to pull her head in, and to stand beside him in fending off Hammond’s attempts to seal the deal.

As far as I’m concerned, this is two betrayals in two books by Will Laurence. And I have to look to Novik here, because to compound the fault, Granby is ‘saved’ from marrying the Sapa Inca by the unexpected arrival of Napoleon himself (so the narrative of ‘close your eyes and think of England man’ is never challenged) – and then gravely wounded in an aerial battle, losing an arm.

Let’s recap, shall we? A primary character is outed (becoming our only canonically queer character), nearly bullied into marrying a woman (with the encouragement of his so-called best friend) and then subjected to a lingering injury that results in an amputation.

Because apparently that’s the only way to finally motivate him into facing down Iskierka and putting her back in her box.

WHAT.

NO.

(You sense a theme emerging here?)

Seriously, way to lose a reader. Frankly, I’d have been appalled even if John had been straight but reluctant for some other reason; but to put your only queer character through all this feels like a terrible authorial choice.

The original promise of the book was to put Will and Temeraire back in front of the Tswana to negotiate a truce. In the end, these negotiations are sandwiched into a few scant chapters at the end. And it’s all a little too easy – in part because Will refuses to toe the colonial line (now we’re back to the ethics of slavery, he’s willing to stand up to the authorities again) and makes Lethabo (the erstwhile Mrs Erasmus) and the Tswana dragons a reasonable offer – but it ends up feeling like the entire mission was a red herring. There’s a wilful belief that the Portuguese will observe the terms of the agreement rather than any examination of their obvious deceitfulness.

…but before we can give this a proper side-eye, Gong Su turns out to be an Imperial agent, and produces a letter from the Crown Prince inviting Will to return to China.

WHAT.

WHAT?

This feels a lot like one of those irritating whodunnits, where it turns out to have been someone who has never previously appeared in the narrative. We’ve had no clues that Gong Su was more than he seemed, and it makes no sense to me that he would sit on such an invitation for so long. Now he is framed as a super-spy (or stellar diplomat), given the keys to unlock an alliance and left to judge when the opportune moment arises.

At best, it feels like we’ve been treading water, distracted and baited for the best of two books, until the over-arching plot finale can be ushered in. But all this delivers is frustrating: I feel like a much-loved series has let me down badly – and repeatedly – in its latter stages, and while the first half of Crucible of Gold was a lot of fun, it is completely overshadowed by what happens in the second half. If I were reading solo, I’d be sorely tempted to switch to Wikipedia recaps at this point. However, as much of the fun comes from the shared reading experience, we’ll be continuing with Blood of Tyrants.

***

(yes, there’s enough fun in the first half that I still feel this gets 3 stars – but consider it a strong 2 and a half, rather than a solid 3. And I may well downgrade it to 2 for the payload of irritation that it unleashes every time I think about it).