Book fawning: Tongues of Serpents and Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik (Temeraire books 6 and 7)

Again, not prepared to write proper reviews here. I just finished Crucible of Gold last night, after starting it the previous day; Tongues of Serpents I got last week on audiobook, so couldn’t exactly speed up the recording time, but I still found enough listening time (licit and illicit) to finish it within a few days.

And I just acquired the ebook of Blood of Tyrants, which I intend to start as soon as this entry is posted. So, once that’s finished in a couple of days, I’ll start listening to the audiobooks of Victory of Eagles on (except for Crucible of Gold, which my library does not have in audio for some stupid reason, and ILL does not always work in my experience). Then I’ll have read all the books in the series twice before the new one comes out next year.

Quick review now for Tongues of Serpents: I was braced for some disappointment here, due to a negative review I read years ago by an author I admire. However, I found no decrease in quality; and while I’m no historian who could find fault in Novik’s details portraying early 19th-century Australia or aboriginal society…it seemed at least respectful enough, like all her portrayals of non-western culture have been? (In fact, my one real criticism of Throne of Jade is that the sailors/westerners on board the Allegiance with the Chinese party, on their tense voyage to China, aren’t nearly racist enough.) But there weren’t even a lot of scenes with the Australian aboriginals.

So I wasn’t disappointed by a drop in quality, no; instead, I was thrilled by Rankin’s return and all the possibilities that opened up. He was a great villain in the first book, perfectly bland at first, and I loved how Laurence beat himself up once he realized Rankin’s real nature and how he’d managed to associate himself with such a person when he’d just arrived at the coven. Also, Levitas’ death scene still brought tears to my eyes, even when re-reading it again this year.

But the scope of the book wasn’t quite as thrilling as the other books in the series — especially following Victory of Eagles, which had my heart in my throat the entire book. There weren’t any real crises for Laurence and Temeraire in this book. Instead, the plot concerned chasing a lost egg across Australia…and then some trade disputes. (Not that the final battle where the aboriginals and Chinese sicced the sea serpents on the British ships wasn’t thrilling, because of course it was. Also, I liked the American cameos, including the foreshadowing for the War of 1812 with the complaints about impressment of American sailors.)

It was good to learn more about different kinds of hatchings, the reception to dragons that appear disabled — even Temeraire’s instinct that a dragon unable to fly might not be worth feeding, which so shocked Laurence — and it’s very nice that Demane got his own dragon, and all their fears came to naught. I also liked the continuing tension between Laurence and the other aviators, and now for Demane as well.

Now that I’ve read Crucible of Gold, I’m even more inclined to forgive Tongues of Serpents for being less ambitious in scale, because oh my God, Naomi Novik should have gotten Lemony Snicket’s permission to subtitle the first part of the book “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

This isn’t a proper review, but I am going to take some time now to marvel at Naomi Novik’s craft, via a description of those unfortunate events and how they compound.

Riley! Oh, Riley, you and your slave-trade-defending ways could not be allowed to live. But this is when Naomi Novik takes my breath away — how realistically she confronts the likely hazards of the time. Such as the perils of running a huge ship with convict sailors. And what happens when a five-day storm hits, exhausting all the officers in managing the ship’s survival, so when they take a well-deserved rest after the storm breaks, and then the convict sailors (long induced to work with rum, encouraging any alcoholism they might have already had) decide to reward themselves by first breaking into the rum stores, and then making a feast in the kitchen that might just set the place on fire. But they’re too drunk to put out the flames or be really alarmed, and they only get in the way when the officers and captain are finally awakened and rush to put out the fire. And when there has been some progress moving the drunks onto the deck, so that the handy dragons are able to scoop them up in some netting and dunk them in the sea, it figures that the good men, the sober men, are all below deck, working to put out the fire, when it reaches the powder stores.


But because this is a fictional series not written by George R.R. Martin, our beloved aviator captains survive (along with all the worst men who most deserve to be blown up). But because this is written by Naomi Novik, Riley does not survive, along with many of their crew (but not Roland, of course and thank God, she had better keep surviving).

And now there are three dragons in the air, with our heroes on their back and belly-nettings full of rotten men, the barest of supplies, and no knowledge of the nearest land, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Despite knowing that the series would not abruptly end with them all drowning, my heart was in my throat as they began flying. It wasn’t in real suspense, I suppose; but the emotional component was so real. I could feel Laurence’s grief and his grimly contained fear for Temeraire and all of them, that either they would find land in something between forty-eight and seventy-two hours, or they would all drown together. (Maybe Temeraire could have floated/paddled in the water for a while, but I don’t know if he could have slept, and they would have run out of fresh water.)

How does it end? Not with them finding a desert island (they do get an hour’s rest each on a small coral reef, once; but no sleep, and no more to drink), but another dragon transport. In the middle of the night, Laurence waking Temeraire up from practically flying in his sleep (and his use of “my dear” in those scenes, when they are so close to death, beat up my heart something good) to direct him toward the flare, and they all crash unceremoniously onto the deck — and the last thing Temeraire is aware of is Laurence sliding off and saying, “We surrender.”

Pretty sure I flailed my hands in the air at that point.

And then! The French (because it is a French ship, and the war with Napoleon marches on) maroon them with the scantiest supplies on an island off the coast of South America. And then! The slovenly sailors do nothing except brew liquor with coconuts, and mutiny, attempting to seize hostage the captains to make the dragons do their bidding. And of course it ends very quickly with them getting mauled. They also have no doctor at this point.

After that, things start getting better. They find a shipwreck holding rope, are able to rig out a harness to carry everyone on the three dragons, and fly the rest of the way to South America, where the Inca Empire is still intact, thanks to their dragons. Pizarro had still come and murdered their emperor, and the Europeans spread plagues that decimated their people, but the dragons remained and are very protective of those who survived. Highly interesting social structures.

Glancing over the rest — it was great for Iskierka’s unruliness to reach a climax, and with such consequences. Awful that it took Granby losing an arm before he could take a stand with her — but I’m glad he finally reached that breaking point, and hopefully she’ll be more dependable and won’t shame him so much in future.

Speaking of Granby — this book fulfilled one of my wishes for the series. I wanted the introduction of a gay character, but I would never have guessed Granby! All the better, of course, to defy today’s stereotypes.  I also loved Laurence’s reaction to it — his utterly realistic offer of sympathy, and how he thinks of it as an “addiction to crime,” but his feelings toward Granby don’t actually change. I hope he and Temeraire have a conversation about it someday, just because Temeraire and his bafflement at 19th-century cultural norms are a great stand-in for us readers with progressive minds.

A few bullet points:

  • I am not at all convinced, though, that the Inca have officially sided with Napoleon, especially to the point of their empress marrying Napoleon. We will see!
  • I do love Hammond and his merciless approach to pursuing diplomatic relations. Laurence often disapproves of his methods, but really, Hammond is whole-heartedly devoted to England’s cause. I was even surprised by how reluctant Laurence was to lose the sailors (even to highly profitable trade) after they were responsible for Riley’s death and nearly murdered them all as well.
  • Oh, new female characters! Mrs. Pemberton seems highly interesting and underused this book, I’m very interested to see what she does in future.
  • I’m also excited about Emily growing up — she’s wonderfully sure of herself and practical about her long-term romantic prospects.
  • Emily/Demane is cute but unlikely, as she herself perceives. I’m glad Laurence doesn’t fret over it more than he would if Demane were English.

Now I’ve read the preview chapter for Blood of Tyrants, which introduces the soap-opera trope of — amnesia! To which I can only say: BRING IT ON. With a vigorous fist-pump. Because Naomi Novik is a top-notch quality author, and I trust her absolutely to do it right.

Also, inhaling so much of the series at once helps me break down the strong appeal it has for me, including what I call bulletproof kinks, such as the intense bonding and protectiveness in the human/dragon relationships. Another essential one is Emotional Reunions. I am all over those, and Naomi Novik does them so well. And there are so many excellent possibilities with amnesia, I can’t wait to see which one she does. Imagine Temeraire finding Laurence at last, swooping down to grab him, but Laurence is — running away. And recoiling from him, when Temeraire bends close. No recognition on his face. Temeraire won’t understand at all, and it’s going to trample my heart, and I’m going to love every minute of it.

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