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REVIEW: Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

REVIEW SUMMARY: Novik continues the Temeraire saga with an effort that is good, but not great.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Frantically searching to find a cure for an illness affecting all of Britain’s dragons, Temeraire finds himself in Africa and involved with his nations distasteful addiction to slavery.


PROS: Fun, light read that continues a story involving characters I have become invested in.
CONS: Plot wanders quite a bit, book was either book-split or the ending was butchered, writing not near as concise and solid as the first book.
BOTTOM LINE: If you have read the other books, you’ll probably enjoy reading this one but be left a bit wanting. There are some serious subjects here that get treated far too lightly and the ending is abrupt.

Wow, what a difference some time and another book can make. After reading three very well written and engaging efforts, I was definitely looking forward to a fourth adventure with the dragon Temeraire and his partner Captain Laurence. The opportunity here is tremendous – there are some very meaty and interesting matters to deal with and explore with the characters. Unfortunately, it feels like Novik lacked the editing she enjoyed on the other books and that detracted from the overall effort.

Temeraire finds himself sent to Africa to determine what he ate that allowed him to get over the mild sickness he came down with on his previous visit. The other dragons in Britain are struggling under the contagion, with many dying. Laurence once again has to deal with his former first-mate and former friend as Captain Riley is tasked with ferrying him down south. Riley and his family support the practice of slavery because their family business depends upon the cheap labor. Laurence and his father are actively working to abolish the practice in England with Laurence using his recent adoption by the Chinese Emperor as a way to garner publicity for the cause. And as you might expect, they are confronted with the supply side of the slave trade when they arrive in Africa. This certainly could have created some interesting discussions and opportunities for Laurence, Riley, and Temeraire to grow. Unfortunately, it never happened – the characters avoid each other instead.

They have a run-in with the African dragons and people who have had enough of families being kidnapped into slavery and have decided to take up arms against it. We get a slew of new characters and interesting (if inscrutable) dragons and even a new dragon mythos to go along with them. Strangely, this is introduced and then not explored. We never get to understand the relationship between the people and the dragons of Africa despite the reincarnation myth they have about the dragons.

And Novik finds herself literally lost in the weeds at times – taking paragraphs to describe landscape and appearances that aren’t integral to the story. The story seems somewhat disjoint – with the major issues in Africa left unsolved and seemingly forgotten after they return to Britain. The story takes a major turn here, as they find themselves at odds with Britain’s military leaders who have decided to use a biological weapon against the French dragons. This last part is compelling and interesting to be sure, but it overshadows the earlier parts of the book. It is hard not to get to the end and think, “Gee, I guess those characters and situations I learned about 50 pages back are now irrelevant.”

Finally, the self-aware nature of Temeraire takes a back seat throughout most of this book. At times, he is reduced to acting like a petulant child. I felt this was incongruous with the tremendous growth his character has gone through in the previous books (especially Throne of Jade). In the end he makes a crucial decision that is in line with the character from the previous books, but until that point I felt she let him devolve a bit.

The ending is also quite abrupt – with a deliberate cliffhanger pretty much requiring you to read the next book. It was a surprise considering none of the other books in this series are like this. Maybe this book was split, and the latter half of the story ties up the first parts in such a way that all will end up as a cohesive whole? We’ll just have to wait for the 5th book in this saga.

1 Comment on REVIEW: Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  1. I tend to think that the dragon/slavery situation in Africa was a commentary on slavery all by itself- just more show instead of tell/debate. How does slavery affect dragons, who are possessive of “their people?” (Pretty badly.) What does that lead to? (A whole lotta destruction.)

    I do think a lot of it has to do with the personality of our narrator, and the focus of the story being on Britain and the British people. Laurence isn’t the most blabby or argumentative guy. As a polite person, he would naturally withdraw from ugly arguments whenever possible, and presumably Riley feels the same way. So I wouldn’t exactly see them getting in big arguments over a long period of time about slavery. And once the story goes back to England, what’s happening in Africa isn’t as immediate to them as the dragon plague is. I don’t think, given the parameters, that Novik would be able to cover everything about Africa in that great of detail in a way that fit with our British characters and home base and priorities.

    Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Novik bring up these issues again in a later book, elsewhere.

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