Friday, April 27, 2012

The Shine is Off the Scales: Naomi Novik's Crucible of Gold

When I first read Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon back in 2006, I was amazed.  It was such an fascinating idea--dragons fighting in the Napoleonic Wars!--and the relationship between the protagonist, Laurence, and his dragon, Temeraire, was amazingly touching and heartwarming.  I might even say that this story of a former British naval officer and his dragon is one of the best love stories I've read in the last decade.

I kept up reading the sequels, which included Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, Victory of Eagles, and Tongues of Serpents.  While these books were often fun, there were certain themes or preoccupations that got repetitive (at best) and seemed heavy-handed (at worst).  Perhaps the most grating of these repeated themes was the series' focus on the issue of slavery--"Dragons should have rights, too!"  I'm all for fantasy that engages with and critiques complex social issues, but after several novels, the repetition of this theme came across as overly didactic.  In Tongues of Serpents, the action shifted from Britain and Europe to Australia, a change that changed up the pattern of the action of the series and added a bit of spice to things.

Needless to say, then, I was quite interested to see what would happen in the most recent installment in the series--Crucible of Gold, which was just released in March.

My initial reaction was one of frustration--two years have elapsed in between the publication of this novel and the previous one, and so I have forgotten many of the details of the series.  I like Novik's series, but not enough to go back and reread 6+ novels every time something new comes out.  While Novik did a good job of reminding readers of important details over the course of the novel, the lack of such details (or even a short summary) near the beginning of the book made it difficult for me to jump right into things.

As I kept reading, I was impressed by how Novik worked to keep things interesting--this wasn't just fight after fight, but a combination of many elements, including exploration and shipwrecks.  At times, though, it felt that she was trying to include too many different things, especially when it came to the way the novel includes socially progressive ideas (which, honestly, seem a bit forced, though I'll let you discover these on your own and make your own judgments).  There are still didactic elements in the novel, particularly as related to slavery, but the introduction of the Inca people and the different power structures seen in their society do a good job of complicating the "enslaving dragons is bad" theme (and provide a lot of rich material for postcolonial criticism!).

My biggest regret about the novel, though, is that it includes so little of the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire.  There are so many new dragons and new humans that we meet over the course of the novel that there is very little time to see the interactions between Temeraire and his human.  And when the novel does focus on these two, it is often to show Laurence's interactions with other humans or Temeraire's petty squabbles with Iskierka, the fire-breathing dragon.  The relationship between Laurence and Temeraire has always been where Novik's writing is at its best, and the lack of much interaction between the two was a big disappointment.  I would like a novel that includes less traipsing around the globe and more room for growth on Laurence and Temeraire's part, both individually and as a pair.

That's a novel that would let Novik--and Temeraire--truly shine.