Finished this one as well in maybe a little over 24 hours, and I have to say it kind of broke me. I’m going to put off starting the audiobook for Victory of Eagles, not because I need a break from Laurence and Temeraire (never!), but rather from the horror and wastefulness of 19th-century war that Naomi Novik portrays with such unflinching realism.
And I read this just way too fast, so I’m definitely not equipped to talk about it sensibly. That should wait for a re-read. Nevertheless, a few thoughts…
This book is helpfully split into Parts 1, 2, and 3 to separate Laurence’s amnesia adventures in Japan, from his recovery and dealing with the internal politics in China, from the godawful and ruinous campaign in Russia. But I think they may have felt a little too distinct? The third one did, anyway. I would have liked more references and reflection on his recent amnesia in that one. (Disclaimer: for me, there is no such thing as too much about Laurence’s amnesia issues.)
Let’s talk about those amnesia issues, as that’s what I was most anticipating in this book.
In some respects, Naomi Novik exceeded my expectations with her insight and application of them; I loved the neat opportunity for Laurence to study and judge both sides of himself, all he’s changed in a period of eight years. First from the perspective of his pre-Temeraire self, struggling to understand how he came to be an aviator and also a traitor; wondering if he’d been lax about his management of Temeraire. Then, as he recovered his memory, he looked back with dislike on the man he’d been, who’d been such a stickler for Duty and the Law without much consideration for his own conscience. This was most beautifully expressed when he said goodbye to Granby and Little, after reflecting on how their liaison had been admitted to him so directly, unlike the more discreet shipboard liaisons to which everyone just turned a blind eye, and therefore he technically had a duty to report their crime (bolding emphasis mine):
The man he had been eight years ago, Laurence realized, would have acknowledged that duty; perhaps would even however reluctantly and unhappily have denounced them to a superior, and set in motion all the machinery of the courts-martial to destroy them. That man would have put duty above not merely personal sentiment and attachment, but above the natural sense of justice which revolted at the idea of exposing to ruin and misery and man for such a crime.
He would have not valued his own feelings, on such a matter, higher than the law and the discipline of the service. if he had kept silent, either from affection or a sense of having received a confidence, or a more practical consideration of the damage the loss of two skilled captains and their beasts would do to the service, he would have felt a painful and bitter guilt at doing so. And so aside from an ordinary mortification at having his intimate concerns so exposed to a man not his close friend, Little had indeed a cause to fear; and especially a partial and stumbling return of Laurence’s memory.
Laurence ruefully admitted to himself that he had been a great deal happier in this instance not to remember: it was wretchedly awkward to know that which he ought not know, and to know that Little and Granby should both know he knew it, while none of them might utter a word on the subject. But he felt no guilt; he was done with that subtle species of cowardice which hid behind the judgment of other men. He said to them, “I had better take my leave of you now, gentlemen; you will have a difficult time enough getting away, I think,” and offered Little his hand. “My most sincere regards, and good fortune, to you both,” he said, as close as he could come, he felt, to conveying a reassurance without being so plain as to embarrass them both.
(Unnecessary aside: did that scene make my heart nearly burst into a thousand twittering birds and hearts, y/y. Also I bolded the parts that are the clearest indication that Laurence is as like-minded as his progressive readers, that despite how he knows being an invert is a crime, he doesn’t think it a particularly reasonable or just crime. I suppose he’s sailed with too many worthy men whom he knew had the same “addiction to crime,” as he put it in the last book.)
Another wonderful exploration of the effects of amnesia came as Laurence encountered things that felt familiar, even though he had no memory of ever encountering them before; a particularly intense, even visceral, sense of deja vu. This was best captured when Temeraire asked Laurence to read to him out of the Principia Mathematica, one of their favorites:
Gerry was sent for the book, and returned quickly; Temeraire dragged a foreleg forward, out from beneath the heap of dragons, and held it forth. He plainly meant it as a couch, and when Laurence put his hands to it, he found he knew how to climb up, and his body remembered the seat in the elbow’s crook as though he were going blindfold up into the rigging. Laurence sat still a moment with the book open upon his lap, struggling with a kind of horror between bone-deep familiarity and endless strangeness.
Now a few ways in which Naomi Novik stopped short of exploring the full potential of the amnesia issues, however, and scenes I dearly wish to have seen:
- The flight from Japan back to the ship, when Temeraire’s first rescued Laurence; especially Laurence’s reaction to the first physical contact with Temeraire, and how Temeraire must have peered at him so anxiously — to be sure of his health, but also he must have taken in Laurence’s clear bewilderment and lack of recognition of him — and any words they exchanged
- Most crucially of that first point: the moment Temeraire realizes Laurence does not know his name; the very name Laurence himself had given him (the more I think about this, the more desperately I want this missing scene)
- Temeraire’s own reflection after Laurence suggested they part, oh my God, why did we not get this; was there any increase in distress, a growing sense that even though this was Laurence in body, it was not the Laurence Temeraire had known so well?
- More glimpses of Laurence’s memory returning; in particular, scenes where he cautiously relayed to Temeraire some memories of their earliest interactions, like details of the day of Temeraire’s hatching, when Laurence first harnessed and fed him, and Temeraire’s delight that Laurence remembers such things again (seriously, this would have greatly helped break up the misery of the Russian campaign)
Another of my favorite scenes occurred after Laurence rescued Tharkay (quite wonderful in itself) and got a chance to confide in him and Granby his fear that the amnesia (not that they have that word, of course; it’s referred to as a “peculiar sort of brain-fever”) is some kind of cowardly retreat because his inner consciousness would rather pretend he still had the relatively uncomplicated life of a sea captain who has never been convicted of treason:
“I am of the opinion,” Tharkay said, “that you ought not assign to free will something more likely the consequence of a sharp blow to the skull.”
Granby snorted. “You are the only fellow I can think of, Laurence, whose notion of a weak-minded retreat would be to cast your own head ahoo and slog onwards confused beyond everything, and nearly kill yourself thrice over.”
Laurence is so lucky to have those two in his life, really. They play off each other well; and Laurence himself has become an enormous favorite of mine, across many series and stories. He’s just a riot; I can’t overestimate how much I was looking forward to him learning about his treason, and if he’d then see the appeal of seppuku (not that he’d act on it). He is, as I saw someone say, the poster boy of a gentleman, and it’s great to see the different ways his ethics can be tested. That’s why the amnesia plotline in this book was so excellent, as it gave both himself and readers the opportunity to compare the ways he’s changed, and to ask the important questions of whether he’s lost or fine-tuned his moral compass.
Addressing non-amnesia parts of the book, now:
It was nice to encounter a society that treated dragons markedly worse than any we’ve seen before; but I do wish it hadn’t come back to bite them (not just the Russians, but all their allies too) in the ass so viciously during the war. But of course it did, because Naomi Novik is just that hardcore.
I really liked the Russian general pointing out to Laurence that he’s not exactly shocked that Laurence is demanding a radical change to his nation’s treatment of dragons — Laurence’s reputation does precede him. That brought me to the realization that from another point of view, the overarching arc of the series isn’t the Napoleonic War at all, but rather Laurence and Temeraire on a global social justice campaign, inciting slave revolutions and breaking trade monopolies.
Favorite bits I haven’t mentioned yet:
- Roland telling Temeraire that he couldn’t drown because no one would look for Laurence otherwise
- Mianning flicking his fingers toward the ground to prompt Laurence to genuflect when he ought to (what a great brother! Laurence and he ought to do more bonding brotherly activities)
- Temeraire apologizing to Laurence for losing his fortune, then thinking Laurence must have forgotten the significance of the sum
- The dryly hilarious lines that had me giggling helplessly, such as Temeraire’s request: “Lily, you will keep a lookout for Laurence, will you not? Pray do not let him wander off, or be assassinated; or lose any more of his memory.”
Things I want answered by the end of the last book (augh):
- Who will end up with Temeraire and Iskierika’s egg
- Some kind of resolution for both Forthing and Ferris (very invested in a good outcome for both of them; I hope Forthing at least will have an opportunity to get some better clothes and keep those clean, since Temeraire made it so clear to him how much that matters)
- A resolution to Hammond’s new cocaine habit, oh my God, I just realized in this book what those coca leaves are that he picked up in the last book. Surely he doesn’t have that many left…
Finally, if the series must end, a spin-off series I desire: Churki finally claiming all of Hammond’s massive family. The children quickly love her, the adults are terrified and take longer to come around but they do because they have no choice. Churki sends word of her good fortune back home, and many more Incan dragons start arriving to woo and take possession of British families. After a period of alarm, it soon becomes trendy to have a dragon. Britain social structure and treatment of dragons is revolutionized.