League of Dragons: it’s alright, so it must be the end

Book cover: League of Dragons - Naomi Novik (a shield boss or metal heraldic device of entwined dragons)As Napoleon retreats from Russia, hopes rally that the Emperor can finally be defeated. But he and his crafty adviser Lien have a few more tricks up their sleeve. Can Temeraire (and the other dragons of the world) resist the promise of a world where dragons are treated as equals?

It’s been a long old journey from a blood-soaked deck in the Atlantic to the ice-locked plains of Russia in winter. I won’t lie – and I doubt you’re surprised – I’m terribly glad it’s finally over. I loved the first half of this series; I’ve laboured through the second half. I’m happy to say the final instalment has enough humour, momentum and tying up of loose ends to be the best of the last four books (however low a bar I may consider that to be. Pretty low, just so we’re clear).

For another volume that (inevitably) focuses heavily on the war, it did a better job of holding my interest. Some of this was down to a rediscovered sense of humour (hooray); some down to an unexpected focus on the bits I find more interesting, such as the logistics of keeping dragons fed and motivated; and some down to the political manoeuvring on display. I enjoy political stories far more than I enjoy military ones, and League of Dragons is all about trust, loyalty and the battle for hearts and minds.

That’s not to say it doesn’t still feel a little padded: most of the first act could have been discarded without much impact. While I enjoyed the posturing and face-slapping that led to Will’s duel (not to mention Hammond unexpectedly stepping up For Friend And Country), I was less impressed by it becoming an excuse for another flirtation with arranged marriages. We had quite enough of that in South America, thank you very much. Thankfully, the situation is resolved by a more than willing Dyhern and the timely return of the Prussian dragons.

…which is all terribly convenient, as it flies in the face of everything we have been told about dragons behaviour when they believe their captains are in danger (I don’t believe we’ve seen any escapees except Dyhern). The Prussians also bring the news that Lien has threatened to destroy Temeraire and Iskierka’s egg – driving a conflicted Temeraire to abandon the injured Will and hightail it to China.

Given the Russian countryside is living in fear of ferals, it’s no surprise when Temeraire is assaulted by the locals. Tharkay arrives unexpectedly to rescue him and move the action along (I adore Tharkay, but he is a Best Friend Ex Machina throughout the series, typically arriving in the nick of time to cut through a plot knot).

A tense second act focuses on rescuing the egg from Lien (can you say trap? Let’s say it together: TRAAAAAP). There’s a lot packed in, reintroducing Granby and Iskierka and – along with a terrifying moment where it looks like Tharkay will be executed for espionage (the only point at which I found my heart in my mouth) – finally sees the hatching of Temeraire’s daughter Ning, who is every bit as magnificently awkward as you’d expect a child of Temeraire and Iskierka to be (if wiser and more manipulative). More importantly, it makes clear just how close Napoleon is to outmanoeuvring the Coalition – and how keen he is to win Temeraire and Will to his banner.

I can’t help it. I like Napoleon. Yes, he’s ruthless. Yes, he’s possibly insincere. Yes, he’s a consummate politician. But his behaviour is consistently so much better than that of the Admiralty or the British Government, that I found myself quite keen on a truly alternate history where dragon emancipation was the outcome of a successful Napoleonic conquest of Europe. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen. Instead, there’s some exciting escaping to be done (with a few unnecessary but thoroughly entertaining hurdles in the shape of angry Indian dragons who are appropriately enthusiastic about eating Englishmen).

Will’s return to London that properly floored me. Of all the twists I didn’t see coming, his promotion to Admiral probably tops the list (as – unlike Will – I knew exactly what had happened when the Incans flew away at Reichenbach). While I’ve hated Wellington at times, I have always admired his pragmatism; although it goes without saying that the Admiralty do their best to make Will’s promotion a poisoned chalice. This leads directly to a final act full of politics at the international level as well as within Will’s command, which I largely enjoyed (not least the hilarious side-note on finding a bank willing to handle funds for dragons).

League of Dragons had a fairly big challenge in front of it in terms of defeating Napoleon, addressing the position of dragons in society, and rehabilitating Will Laurence. Overall, I think it does a decent job of wrapping up those loose ends and leaves everyone in a good place (whilst making it clear they have new phases of their lives opening up). However, an awful lot of the tidying up – however crucial to the finale – happens off the page, which I found frustrating.

Perscitia – now an MP – fights what must have been a fascinating political battle to push through the Dragon Rights Act. I love that not all heroes fight military engagements, but I would have loved to see more of this plot play out. Similarly, there’s an awful lot of winning over ferals – by both sides – that happens in passing; crucial wins that change the balance of power. Perhaps most bizarrely, Novik chooses not to show us the climax of the final battle, switching from a pivotal moment to the aftermath, and robbing us of a showdown 7 books in the making.

But I don’t think these are the main reasons I found myself at best entertained rather than fully engaged. I was conscious that there were beats in the story that would have delighted me 6 months ago that now only raised a wry smile. The second half of the series did the damage; add a catalogue of minor frustrations and inevitably I liked this book rather than loving it.

In the end, I feel that I and my Muskedragon co-readers were far more invested in the emotional journeys than the books themselves, which play second fiddle to the war and the politics after being so well set up early on.