Book review: Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

Monday night I finished the first new (to me) Naomi Novik book I’ve read since 2007. I started it the previous afternoon.

Fortunately, it did not end on as horrifying a cliffhanger as the previous book, so I might just be able to wait for the library copy of the next one to arrive. Though I will, of course, complete my paperback collection before long.

I got the impression from someone, years ago, that the Temeraire series decreases in quality as it goes along. Five books in, I can only say HA.  And also, with much flailing of arms: HOW IS THIS BOOK SO GOOD? HOW IS IT BASICALLY THE BEST ONE YET?

When I finished Empire of Ivory last week, I was consumed with the question of how Laurence was going to escape execution, a fate that seemed so certain I really couldn’t imagine an out– or at least not a realistic one worthy of Naomi Novik.

In the end, it was relatively simple and obvious for that execution to be postponed for the duration of the invasion (which hadn’t occurred yet, at the end of the previous book), when Temeraire was so needed to fight Napoleon, and then afterward (when Laurence and Temeraire had served fairly well and provided an important service to the war effort, and also alarmed the lords with his radical speech) for it to be commuted to transportation and labor. But no other part of the consequences were simple or easy.

(Spoilers ahead for a book published seven years ago…)

Laurence is convicted of treason to his country in wartime, and everyone knows it. Family, friends, enemies. Blackening not only his own character past any chance of redemption, but casting suspicious taints over everyone close to him, everyone he cares for. His loyal and competent first lieutenant, Ferris, is dismissed from service — a good man lost to the Corps, his whole career ruined, and God knows where he is and what he’s doing now. The slaveholders’ lawsuit against Laurence basically proceeds without a defense, with most of his assets seized. And the core of Laurence’s self-identity — of being a loyal, honorable soldier — is shattered. In addition, Jane Roland goes through a great deal more humiliation, suspicion, and scrutiny, on top of what she was already dealing with as a matter of course.

And Temeraire is sent to the breeding grounds. That’s how the book opens — brilliantly, I thought (though I very much want to see that parting scene between him and Laurence, their last words and looks when they both know it could likely be the last time they see each other alive, and they’re both trying to be brave for each other — I WANT THIS). Especially because of the overarching plot of Temeraire’s campaign for dragon rights, and he is one of the two main characters, the whole series named after him; it’s about time we start seeing his POV.

Plus it really helped as the devastating consequences of their actions unfolded for Laurence and Temeraire differently over the book. We saw how little Temeraire actually saw, for so damn long. It took almost three hundred pages for him to even realize Laurence had been stripped of his rank as captain and dismissed from service.

God, I grew so worried about Laurence even just partway into the book. When your whole self-identity and the foundation of your self-esteem is destroyed like that — you can so easily lose yourself, lose your whole moral compass along with your will to live. As I believe did happen for a while, when Wellington (Wellington! My British history was shaky enough to be delightfully surprised by his name change, at the end of the book) caught him at that horribly vulnerable moment, with such unpleasant/dishonorable orders.

I was really hoping Temeraire could find a way to confront him in order to snap him out of it. This has been a puzzle for me so far in the series — how deep is their relationship, really? I mean, is it as complete and equal-footed a partnership as the best kind of human relationships? To that end, I wondered if they would ever have a real argument or fight, as I think that’s a good test for any relationship, to see if there’s anything beyond the first few inches of affection.

The fight didn’t happen (still holding out for the next few books, then), but this was a serious test for them all the same, and I was very glad when Temeraire offered to sell his talon sheaths for Laurence’s sake; when he said that he was sorry Laurence had been hurt before, because Temeraire hadn’t known, and he wanted to know now; and finally, asking directly what he could do to help. Also, it reassured me at one of their reunions when Temeraire asked if Laurence was well, and Laurence just said “yes” in the way that Temeraire knew meant he was not well at all. You can’t take for granted how much a dragon can discern verbal intonation and body language, as it depends on each author.

Nevertheless — Temeraire was not the one who was able to snap Laurence out of his downward spiral, and that saddens me. Though I do appreciate the unique position and role Tharkay has in Laurence’s world.

Another aspect that gave me enormous respect for this book: the continuing trouble with Iskierka! No easy settling down there, not even at the end of the book. That was the one part that left me with some real misgivings:

  1. England has lost its Celestial and its fire-breather? (Oh wait, there’s another egg! I hope it’s the same breed, maybe it’ll be much calmer)
  2. Does this mean Granby’s going to be listed as a deserter, or officially reassigned? Is he going to have to stay indefinitely in Australia now, too? AUGH. Granby deserves better — I really feel for him. But yeah, looking forward to what happens to his story in the next books.

Also, the unexpected meeting with Edith and Bertram, and the sequence that led to Bertram’s unfortunate end. Really well handled, I think, from how Laurence had to kill those unarmed soldiers, to the sheet-throwing attack, to how bullets just happen and there’s nothing you can do — and I thought Laurence’s “Damn you,” to no one in particular, very fitting. I wonder if he and Edith will ever meet again.

I felt so sad for Laurence at his last meeting with his mother, and afterward how he said he would never go back there. Oh, Laurence.

And how great of a conversation did he and Jane have, midway through? So excellent. She’s wonderfully forthright — a jewel of a character, really, who does not waste time with any bushes. “I do beg your pardon, with all my heart.” – “Yes, but you beg it for the wrong reasons. …as though you owed me apology as a lover and not as your commander.” Telling him she would have cheerfully run him through herself for a week; and even though there’s less acrimony now, she still says, “but damn you anyway, Laurence.” They don’t need to say their previous relationship has ended.

But it’s a relief to know that Wellington sees Jane’s worth and rewarded her after the battle, and she still trusts Emily’s safety and development with Laurence, even if Emily’s future is assured as Excidium’s successor.

Other follow-ups from my concerns after the last book: I noticed how Riley shut himself up in his cabin at the end of the book, and I don’t think it was just about saying goodbye to his infant son. Looking forward to hearing the state of his and Harcourt’s marriage. I noticed that Lily said Harcourt can’t make him divorce her, now.

Now an example of Naomi Novik’s dry but hilarious style, describing how the dragons honor the dead after a battle:

So a couple of the Reapers had dug a grave, perhaps a little deep, some twenty foot, and the couriers had collected up the dead and put them inside, and after they had filled the hole in, Chalcedony had respectfully stuck one of the least-charred French flags upright into the mound, and they had all bowed their solemnly for a moment, and then they had eaten some pigs.

On a final note, Novik’s afterward, acknowledging and thanking her “beta readers” and the whole fan community she’s been part of for years — specifically identifying herself as a fanfic writer, and calling out the Organization for Transformative Works — that afterward nearly made me cry, in the best of ways.

Things to do before I die: find Naomi Novik on a public appearance, and ask if I can give her a hug.

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