Black Powder War by Naomi Novik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Black Powder War is another great entry by Ms. Novik in the Temeraire series. It picks up almost immediately after the previous book ended. Now Temeraire and crew must head to the Ottoman Empire. Oh, and for variety, Ms Novik has their ship burn down so they have to travel along the ancient (and at this point mostly non-existent) Silk Road.
As before, the story milks a lot from Laurence and aristocratic manners. But it also touches on quite a few other things. Temeraire has now seen how well dragons are treated in China and is impatient to get back to England to begin reforms for dragon equality. Most of his back and forth with Laurence (as well as the except of an in-universe book at the end) mirrors the debate around human African slavery. In fact, since that also exists in the world of Temeraire, it proves extra hard for Laurence to reconcile since his family has been on the side of ending the British involvement in the slave trade. Indeed, in the real world, Britain had ended its role in the slave trade much earlier than the USA.
If there’s one thing most non-history geeks know (and even quite a few history geeks) it’s that most people never left their immediate 20 mile radius from where they lived. We learn about traders and how they must have traveled, but until I read Neal Stephenson’s Foreworld Cycle, I never considered that traders and those in the military (including crusaders) would have traveled infinitely more than those around them. In fact, more than many modern humans. These people were often seen as outside of society, contaminated from contact with foreigners. That makes sense, because they’d probably come back with some ideas that the ruling class might find anathema. Couple that with the race theory of the 1800s and you can see why Tharkay, a character with a caucasian father and central asian mother, finds himself completely outside of society. To survive he effectively becomes nomadic – ferrying messages and goods across overland routes that most would deem too dangerous. This makes him one of the more interesting characters in this book. Ms. Novik contrives to have him play a small role in the book and I think this makes the impact of his lot in life hit a bit harder.
There are probably other themes I’m forgetting. But this book, once it got going, was one I found hard to put down. As you can see, I finished it in a mere 3 days. The battles in the latter third of the book are harrowing and I was left in suspense each time I had to leave the book. I don’t know if this is due to my ignorance of European history at this time or if Ms. Novik changes history at this point thanks to Napolean’s availability of air power (via dragons) changing the calculus of his conquest of Europe. I’m still hesitant to look it up. I know, because it’s so famous, that in real life he eventually lost to Russia when trying to conquer them. But I don’t know if this is yet to happen. For example, I know Temeraire makes mention of the American Colonies having won their independence from Britain, but I also think I read somewhere (not sure if it’s a spoilers thing or if it was in one of the in-world books) that the USA doesn’t get to enact full manifest destiny because the Native Americans also have dragons.
Either way, if you liked the first two books, this one is like a great combination of them. The battles of book 1 put together with the travelogue of book 2.
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