Monday, August 13, 2007

Throne of Jade,by Naomi Novik

Throne of Jade
Naomi Novik
Del Rey: 2006

2006 was a great year for Naomi Novik. She had her first three novels all published several months apart and garnered a great deal of critical acclaim and commercial success for the Temeraire series. Beginning with His Majesty's Dragon Novik introduced us to a fictional version of history where dragons exist and were used in the Napoleonic Wars as a primitive Air Force and giving a new dimension to historical events. In a naval battle Captain Will Laurence captured a dragon's egg from a French ship and when the dragon hatched it bonded to Laurence, a cause for great consternation as Laurence was a sailor and not a member of the aerial corps, but Temeraire and Laurence were bonded (much like Anne McCaffrey's "impression" between rider and dragon). In that first novel we see Laurence learn more about Temeraire and the aerial corps, training sequences, dragon history, and some air battles with the dragons. It was a fantastic first novel, everything a reader could hope for. By the end we learn that Temeraire is a Chinese Celestial dragon, a very rare and important breed only owned by Emperors and Royalty. And here a captain in England's aerial corps has the dragon.

While the discovery of what breed of dragon Temeraire is becomes a semi-important point of His Majesty's Dragon, it becomes the central point of Throne of Jade. The Chinese learn of Temeraire being held by England and Will Laurence and they wish Temeraire to be returned immediately. Laurence refused to give up Temeraire and Temeraire likewise refuses to be parted from Laurence. During negotiation it is agreed that Temeraire and Laurence will both go to China, by sea, where the matter will be settled. This sets up the middle third (perhaps half) of Throne of Jade: Temeraire at Sea. At first I thought this might be a very good thing because we could get back to some of the nautical life that was so fascinating at the beginning of His Majesty's Dragon and Novik could touch upon some of those comparisons to Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey / Maturin series which permeated the early part of His Majesty's Dragon. Unfortunately, from when the ship left England and arrived in China that whole middle section dragged. Yes, there was a naval battle, Temeraire saw action, tension between the Chinese and Laurence, tension between Laurence and his former naval mate Riley, lots of tension, and overall enough notable things happened that the Sailing Chapters should have moved briskly. Novik's smooth writing could only do so much. I felt much of those eight or so months spent at sea and despite all the action Novik attempted to throw in to Throne of Jade, the middle of the novel was a bit weak and was an albatross around the neck of the narrative.

What worked was the ending. Once Laurence and Temeraire were on land in China the novel became exciting as it should have been all along. We see the difference between Chinese and English dragons, culture, and how they treat dragons. We wonder, honestly, if Temeraire will wish to stay and what Laurence will do about it. At the end we care. The ending is quite effective, but it made me wish the whole novel was equal to Novik's crafting of the ending.

Throne of Jade is worth reading if you are looking for another adventure of Temeraire and Captain Laurence, but it is not nearly as strong a novel as His Majesty's Dragon. Hopefully the follow up, Black Powder War will be equal to the beginning of His Majesty's Dragon because unfortunately Throne of Jade read like nothing more than a 400 page middle novel of a trilogy where little truly happens to advance the plot and our heroes are only moved into a position where they will be set for the conclusion of the tale. Decently entertaining at times and easily readable, Throne of Jade does not get a recommendation as a stand alone novel but does get a passing grade as part of the Temeraire series on the strength of His Majesty's Dragon. Novik could have trimmed a good 50 pages, perhaps 75, out of the Sailing Chapters and nobody would have noticed and it might have made the novel all the stronger.

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