Blood of Tyrants: are we nearly there yet?

Book cover: Blood of Tyrants - Naomi Novik (black dragon entwined around a glass bauble picturing the Moscow skyline)Shipwrecked en route back to China, Will loses not only Temeraire but his memory. Stranded in a land where foreigners are forbidden by law, how can he find a crew he can’t remember – or be the credible ambassador to China his country needs him to be?

8 books ago, a very special dragon hatched and won the heart of straight-laced Naval officer Captain William Laurence and of this reader. Temeraire’s naïveté, intelligence and warm heart were irresistible; Will’s awkward journey towards loosening the odd button and accepting the occasional wrinkle (in manners or attire) was charming.

The interweaving of fantastical elements with global history was fascinating – it was evident at every step that implications had been thought through; the dragons weren’t just pasted on to the Napoleonic Wars. The narrative adhered to historical norms and then challenged them, the unconventional aviators and the dragons themselves rejecting social expectations as Temeraire demanded better for everyone.

Even when the military bits had me glazing over, there was enough going on around them to keep me captivated. As tensions rose and the conflict between duty and desire boiled over, the hideous consequences of personal dilemmas were explored in a way that felt meaningful. Yes, I shouted at the page from time to time (but mostly in a good way), but it all felt like it had direction and purpose.

And then Temeraire got sent on a World Tour. The plot advancement became opaque. Everything began to feel like set-up with no pay-off (and at this point, there’s simply no way League of Dragons can make all this worthwhile). Characters made choices that look increasingly suspect. The author made some terrible mistakes.

And now Will gets amnesia, because that’s always a good way to pad something out. I candidly admit this is one of my pet hates, but especially so in the latter stages of this series, when most of the things I’ve loved have become sadly faded and all there is left to cling on to is the relationship between man and dragon. Putting it in jeopardy is… the obvious thing to do, I guess, but – in the context of the Napoleonic Wars and the orders the boys are following at the time – it feels a lot like padding. After all, it’s not like there aren’t major plot points already in play. How can they shore up a Chinese alliance and head off defeat in Europe if they’re shipwrecked in Japan and Will thinks he’s still captain of whatever that ship was called anyway?

With all this to deal with, Blood of Tyrants feels incredibly bitty, even by the episodic standards of the early books. It also continues the latter format of Around the World in 80 Dragons. The first third is set in Japan, which is less interesting for Will’s predicament and the trope-driven human context (yes, I grew up reading Shogun too, thanks) than for its dragons (as usual) and for the tantalising glimpse into American dragondom. But I felt largely vindicated in expecting this to be padding, as the Japanese mini-adventure adds little except transient angst before we move on to China (finally) to become embroiled once more in local politics.

The second third was easily my favourite part of the book, which I would happily have seen expanded into another all-Chinese instalment. It begins with a plot on the Crown Prince’s life, flirts briefly (but thankfully rapidly discards) the old idea of splitting our boys up, and then launches into a high-stakes subplot in which Will must prove the British aren’t importing opium (ah, Will, about that…) to show the dissident nobles that foreigners aren’t all wicked (just don’t ask Hammond how much he knew all along).

It’s entertaining, it’s tense and it involves a fabulous scene in which Emily defends Mrs Pemberton from bandits and an amusing one where still-amnesiac Will fails to do the maths to confirm that Emily can’t possibly be his daughter (sure, Temeraire has always been more interested in and gifted at maths than Will, but even Will should have been able to work this one out for himself, amnesia or no. Still, funny). Will’s amnesia is eventually fixed along the way (see also: padding. Unnecessary padding. Did someone perhaps have a word count target?), and the best I can say about that is that while his cure is inevitable (because I really should have seen that coming), it’s still a little bit adorable.

But then it’s time to get back to the war. As a reward for their efforts (and disregarding the pressing question of whether the Chinese succession is assured, let alone furnished with an appropriate dragon for the Crown Prince), our travellers are split up and sent back to Russia when news arrives that Napoleon has invaded.

We lose our Muskedragon friends and – hooray! – Iskierka (increasingly unbearable since she laid her egg) in exchange for an army of Chinese dragons that nobody in Russia believes are real. Because you’d be able to see that many Chinese dragons – they definitely wouldn’t be far too organised for you to miss them – and because Russian dragons are treated even worse than British ones (to the extent that by the time we get to a critical scene in the final act, I was cheering on the French. Will. Have you learnt nothing, Will? DO THE RIGHT THING WILL. NOW NOT LATER).

…and this is where it all grinds to a halt. I was bored to tears by the final act of Black Powder War, but Blood of Tyrants gives it a good run for its money. We’re back to full-on military fantasy, with Novik feeling the need to dish up a big serve of history to show she hasn’t forgotten it in between all her twists and changes. We slogged through Prussia – now it’s time for the march on Moscow. And yes, war is hell, and yes, the Russians are just awful, and yes, I spent the entire last act wishing it was over already. The subplot regards the Russian dragons was the only thing I was there for, which is just as well since the book ends unresolved.

Well, sort of.

I don’t know much Napoleonic history, but I’m pretty clear what happened when winter came. Not a strong cliffhanger – just a frustrating one.

So yes, I’m dissatisfied. Disappointed. Bored, even. I mean, it’s not bad and it didn’t make me angry like Crucible of Gold. But after the heady promise of the first half of the series, the second half has been lacklustre to say the least. The writing remains readable, but it’s all become horribly formulaic, and consequently stale. Even Temeraire’s naïveté has lost its appeal (I’m sorry my darling, but you’ve seen enough to have grown up a bit by now). Emily and Tharkay provide occasional moments of fleeting joy, but it’s all become terribly hard work.

Because I adore my Muskedragon co-readers and there is only one left now, we will plough on to the finish. I am sadly past the belief that it will have been worth it in the end. I honestly don’t know what Novik could pull out of the bag to persuade me – so I continue in the spirit of fellowship and completism, and I apologise in advance for the potentially grumpy commentary to come.


(It’s not bad. It’s just not the book I wanted it to be)