Book fawning: Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik (also, Temeraire series 1-4)

I am in no way prepared to write formal reviews of Temeraire books, particularly the second and third. They feed my id. If it were possible to pour their contents into something that could envelop me bodily, like a bathtub of tapioca pudding, I would strip off all my clothing and wallow in it during every free hour I had. Like only a half-dozen other series’ worlds that I’ve encountered since my childhood, I literally want to crawl inside and seal up the exit after me.

Principally this is due to Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship (as well as the relationship between nearly every other captain and his/her dragon). Such utterly devoted love and co-dependence, with a healthy degree of strong protectiveness — it will do me in any day of the week.

Also, I am a complete sap for historical fiction written this well. Naomi Novik has done her research thoroughly — not just the period-specific cultures of each country and continent they visit in each book, but the more ordinary cultural details that form Laurence’s world. His reactions to female aviators, the tension between him and Riley over the slave trade. Also, 19th-century language is one of my favorite styles, I admit. It’s a large reason why I’m such a big fan of the Austen books. I love their vocabulary, the delightfully wordy way they say everything — okay, one example, one of my favorite passages in Empire of Ivory (outside of the wonderful reunion scenes between Laurence and Temeraire), because this is Laurence and Riley’s idea of a bitterly hostile, knockout fight (after Riley did not provide the usual courtesy to bring a black woman aboard the ship, because he is unfortunately a racist and slave-trade apologist, so Laurence got Temeraire to lift the boat directly):

…with a will they rose to the occasion, and after only a few more moderate exchanges, Riley’s “And I hope, sir, that I need never again see the ship’s crew or her boats subjected to, I am sorry to call it so, outright interference, under not only the permission but the encouragement –” progressed very neatly to Laurence’s reply,

“And for my part, Captain Riley, I would be glad to never again be witness to such a positive disdain not only for all the generally understood requirements of courtesy, but for the very safety of her passengers, from the crew of one of His Majesty’s vessels — I will not say deliberate insult –“

They were soon in such fine form as might be expected from two men both in the habit of command, and of full voice, whose former acquaintance made it no difficulty to touch upon such subjects as might provoke the most dramatic reaction. “You cannot claim,” Riley said, “not to have a proper understanding of precedence in these matters; you can make no such excuse. You know your duty perfectly well. You set your beast deliberately onto the ship’s crew, without permission. You might have asked for a chair, if you wished one slung –“

“If I had imagined that such a request needed to be made, upon what I had supposed to be a well-run ship, when a lady was to come aboard –” Laurence said.

“I suppose we must mean a little something different by the term,” Riley retorted, sarcastic and quick.

He at once looked heartily embarrassed, when the remark escaped him; but Laurence was in no way inclined to wait for him to withdraw, and said angrily, “It would grieve me indeed to be forced to impute any ungentlemanlike motive — any selfish consideration, which might prompt a gentlemen to make such remarks so nearly intolerable upon the character and respectability of a clergyman’s wife, and a mother, wholly unknown to him and therefore offering no grounds whatsoever to merit his scorn — save perhaps as an alternative, preferable to the examination of his own conscience –“

It’s just the most wonderfully ridiculous argument I’ve ever seen (in wording, not subject), and I wish we all still talked that way.

My hopelessly ingrained admiration for the books aside, I do have some thoughts to share after finishing the fourth book, Empire of Ivory. Mostly about the female characters’ arcs (Catherine Harcourt, Jane Roland, Iskierka, Mrs. Erasmus).

First, Harcourt. Now, I haven’t read any further in the series, so I don’t know yet how her marriage with Riley is going to turn out, but I have some deep reservations. What kind of conversations did they have when he was trying to persuade her to marry him? Did she ever tell him, “See, Tom, I’m awfully fond of you, but no one’s ever going to come before Lily with me”? He really ought to understand that he, as her husband, will always come second to her dragon, before he enters into marriage with an aviator. And how is he going to react if it is a girl and Harcourt follows through on insisting the daughter keep her last name? For that matter, is Harcourt going to change her own name?

I don’t believe Riley is a bad man at heart (apart from the racism and defending his family’s positions on the slave trade), I was glad he and Laurence repaired their friendship, but he is obviously not of a progressive mind. His horrified reaction to first discovering women in the Aerial Corps was enough testament of that. I really don’t see this marriage working out, at all. And Harcourt’s ready to shrug off a divorce, but I don’t think Riley will so readily accept that. …Then again, if he’s making Harcourt unhappy for any long period of time, Lily won’t give him a choice. And that just won’t end well — he won’t get over it nearly as fast as she will, and he’ll probably think bitterly of the whole Corps afterward, and it’ll endanger his friendship with Laurence again.

But oh man, how great was their wedding? So, so great. Catherine got married in TROUSERS and her aviator coat! That is just perfect. I am so delighted by the idea of two people in pants standing at the altar, in that era. (And seriously, the fact that Riley had no idea that she wouldn’t look for a wedding dress does not make one hopeful for their marriage. I don’t think he knows her at all.)

On another note, it’s pretty incredible that she didn’t miscarry, even on that first violent journey after their kidnapping, when they were all beaten about and vomiting from the air, and many of their number were being killed. You’d think that’d be enough stress and physical stress to induce a miscarriage. I’m not really complaining, but I’m also itching to write a fic where she does have a miscarriage in that cave they’re kept in, how she tells them (and herself) it’s really for the best, and her conversation with Lily afterward.

Now, more briefly, concerning Jane Roland. So pleased she was promoted to admiral, but I can’t help thinking that it’s not going to end well. As was already shown, there is surely going to be unending friction with all other branches of the military, it’ll ultimately make it much more difficult to get anything done for the Aerial Corps, and with all the urgency of wartime, surely she’s going to be replaced — or voluntarily step down — for the sake of the rest of the Corps.

(Also, my one issue with the audiobook performer, Simon Vance, is the high and airy voice he gives her [and basically every other female character]. Please— if ever a woman had a deeper, heartier voice, it is Jane Roland.)

And Iskierka! She cracks me up. It was such a great follow-up at the end of the book, when we learn that that idea Temeraire planted in her head, about how seizing enemy ships brings capital, was not at all dropped. And it actually made her better trained, as she learned to only threaten enemy ships with fire but not actually set them alight. It’s also great how she loves to make Granby all sparkly.

Finally, I really appreciated Mrs. Erasmus’ role in the book. Her good-hearted but unprepared husband; the obvious suffering she’s been through, largely left unsaid; and the decision she made at the end, choosing the society that would treat them far better than the one they left behind. I do wonder what her marriage had been like, if it was a matter of convenience for her, though I’m sure her husband treated her well. Were the daughters his, I wonder?

Back to the plot, in conclusion — it’s interesting how while the threat to the dragons over the majority of the book was very high-stakes and effective (I felt so much for the captains who watched their dragons die — no wonder Lenton had his breakdown, it’s a wonder they all don’t go off the deep end and end up shooting themselves after their dragons. It’s probably too much to hope they had any kind of organized support group for the captains who lost their dragons), it was really all just a prelude for the ending arc, where Laurence and Temeraire break loose to bring the cure to the French.

Everything about that whole sequence — from their first conversation where Laurence says three times, “It is treason” but won’t let Temeraire do it alone; to Temeraire’s apology to Celeritas right before they flee; to the way Laurence fell off of Temeraire when they arrived in France, oh my God, and trying to reassure Temeraire as he’s led away at gunpoint; to when he admits to Temeraire that he must go back and surrender himself, and of course Temeraire won’t let him go alone; to the meeting with Napoleon, who warns Laurence they won’t tell Temeraire when Laurence is executed. It all makes me want to howl and bawl at once. I really don’t see how he’s going to escape being sentenced to death, though of course I know he’ll survive. I don’t know if even a mass threatened mutiny by the Aerial Corps would work.

I remember rushing to the bookstore when Victory of Eagles was released, but outraged to find it was released in hard cover for the first time, at three times the price, so I left it and decided to wait for the paperback (honestly, the lack of symmetry between my collection of paperbacks and hardback for the series would have bothered me, too). And then I think I got distracted by A Song of Ice and Fire. Still, finishing this book for a second time, I don’t know how I resisted the sequel. I did, by the way, break my rule about collection symmetry for Dance of Dragons.

Now, unlike with the last two books, my library e-book site isn’t letting me download the next one immediately — I have no idea why, it says I’m first in the queue, why can’t multiple copies of an e-book be borrowed simultaneously — but, since I just had my birthday and a friend asked what she can get me, I requested the paperback of Victory of Eagles. So hopefully it will be delivered this Saturday, and then I will have to force myself to leave it unopened for the rest of the day, as I’ll be entertaining her and then my birthday party that night.

2 thoughts on “Book fawning: Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik (also, Temeraire series 1-4)

  1. Looks like it’s time for me to re-read His Majesty’s Dragon. :D Back when Barnes and Noble (and Amazon I guess) used to give away decently recent books for free on a weekly basis in order to snag people into buying the rest of the series, I downloaded His Majesty’s Dragon. I was one of those people they snagged–I ended up buying most of the rest of the series except the most recent book. I adored Laurence and Toothless’s (erm… Temeraire’s :P) relationship and how well Novik put dragons into that time period. I was thoroughly impressed by it, and reading your review has inspired me to re-read it.

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