Review: Temeraire and Throne of Jade

Temeraire by Naomi Novik (2007) –  large_5

It was based on the recommendations of both my girlfriend and my older brother that I decided to pick up a copy of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire – and obviously, the quote of endorsement by Peter Jackson on the back of the book might have had some influence over me…

Temeraire is set during the Napoleonic Wars, but is set in a world where dragons exist, and tells the story of Will Laurence, a naval captain who is inadvertently paired with a newly hatched dragon, Temeraire, and is forced to leave the life he knew behind and join the Aerial Corps with his new companion.

*

Naomi Novik’s début novel is a  very busy book. Not only is it a daring retelling of history, or a swooping historical fantasy, or a nail-biting adventure, but it is also a story about finding your place in the world, about triumphing against all odds, and most importantly, it is about friendship and companionship.

The success of Temeraire hinges on the central relationship between the two main characters, Laurence and Temeraire, and Novik does a fantastic job of making sure we care about them. Both are utterly compelling and realistic characters (no easy feat, considering one of them is a mythical creature), and their almost paternal relationship is a sweet and tender one, although Laurence’s propensity for calling Temeraire “My Dear”, even into the dragon’s adulthood, does tend to grate at times.

The dynamic of this central relationship is strange. Laurence, the stern and formal captain with a bleeding heart, and Temeraire, the wide-eyed and naive dragon whose arrival causes the end of Laurence’s comfortable existence. Yet despite their differences, they make a delightful odd couple and their interactions guarantee that there is a strong heart at the core of the story, and as Laurence’s stiff and formal personality starts to crack and fall away, making him a far more human and relatable character, that heart only gets stronger and warmer.

*

But there is much more to Temeraire than just a simple ‘one man and his dragon’ story. There are battles and betrayals, tragedy and treachery, friendships and foes, danger and death. Amazing though, the book never feels crowded, and zips along at a very nice pace. Novik’s writing style, although occasionally a little too wordy, is both accessible and interesting, making for a comfortable read. She has also cleverly adopted the sentence structure and syntax of the era in which the book is set, making it an altogether  more historical and immersive story.

Although several of the book’s plot-points were fairly easy to predict, this does nothing to diminish  the quality and enjoyability of the story, and while it’s fairly obvious how the book will end from quite early on, the way the Novik gets to that ending may just surprise you. The world that she has created though, is so beautifully realised, that it is almost impossible not to get completely caught up in the story. It is definitely one of the most interesting fantasy worlds that I have visited in recent years (the most interesting being Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series).

*

Although the main focus of the story is on Laurence and Temeraire, the supporting cast are just as strong and believable. Personal favourites include that loyal and outspoken Granby, and Captain Roland, a steely but surprisingly tender character. On the dragon side of things, favourites include the delightfully simple Volly, and the enormous but endearingly childlike Maximus. All the great supporting characters help to increase the believability and richness of the story and of the world that Novik had created. She makes sure that there are enough likeable characters, both human and dragon, to keep you fully engrossed.

*

With a strong central relationship and a fast-paced and action packed story, Temeraire is one of those rare treats – a historical fantasy that never feels unnecessarily meandering and has a real heart at its centre. It also establishes Naomi Novik as a writer to look out for. On the strength of her first book alone, it seems she has what it takes to become one of the great new authors of fantasy.

*

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik (2007) –  large_4

It was always going to be hard for Naomi Novik to follow up her brilliant début novel, and despite the second book in the Temeraire series still being an very good read, it never quite manages to reach the same soaring heights of its predecessor.

One of the main reasons for this is down to the fact that there was so much going on in Temeraire, and in comparison, the plot of Throne of Jade feels quite sparse. The book deals with Temeraire being ordered to return to his native China, where he will be separated from Laurence. Naturally, this doesn’t go down to well with either of the main characters, but under orders from the British Government, they agree to travel to China, knowing that, once there, they may never see each other again.

That synopsis paves the way for a very interesting and tension filled book, where characters and their emotions are really put to the test, but unfortunately, it doesn’t really live up to its intriguing premise.

*

One of the main reasons the story isn’t as compelling as the first book is down to how much focus is put on the eight month journey to China. It takes up the main bulk of the book, but very little happens, making the book slightly ponderous. True, there is heart-pounding battle with a sea-serpent, a foiled assassination attempt, and tension between the Chinese and British passengers reach boiling point at times, and each one of these moments plays out brilliantly, but the majority of the journey is uneventful and consists of Temeraire learning more about China, and Laurence worrying about it from afar. While this slow pace does tend to drag at times, the book is certainly never boring, with Novik knowing exactly when to place another set-piece to grab the reader’s interest again.

There is still much to be admired here though. In contrast to the slow-paced main bulk of the story, the last few chapters of the book, which deal with their arrival in China, fly past at great speed, and contain two huge action sequences, making for a thrilling and breathless finale to the book.

Novik’s expansion of her world is effortlessly handled, with her dragon filled Imperial China brilliantly realised, as are the many differences between Western dragons and Chinese dragons, particularly there status within society. And she is not afraid to kill off characters, no matter how young or how likeable they are, giving the book an often lacking sense of realism.

*

One of the strongest elements of the previous book was it’s central relationship between Laurence and Temeraire, and that is once again the case here. Their friendship and their real fear over being separated is the real drive behind this book, and Laurence’s constant fear the China’s exotic ways will tempt his friend away from him, coupled with Temeraire’s obstinate refusals to be separated from his captain makes for some very tender and heartfelt moments between them.

Temeraire’s influence once again brings out the best in Laurence’s character. His transformation from stuffy captain to lovable rogue continues, and his devil-may-care attitude towards authority and his growing loyalty to his friends in the Aerial Corps make him a very endearing character.

Unfortunately, Temeraire’s character goes the other way in this book. No longer the curious child of the first book, he has matured in body, but certainly not in mind. Seemingly stuck in the terrible teens throughout this book, and acting like a spoiled brat, it’s all you can do but wish that Laurence would give him a good slap on the head occasionally. Despite this, he is still a very compelling character, and his new attitude makes his interactions with Laurence much more interesting.

*

Like the last book, the supporting cast is once again very strong, and features some very welcome additions. Captain Riley, Laurence’s naval friend and former second officer, makes a reappearance in this book, this time with a much bigger part, and his friendship with Laurence, occasional put under strain in this book, adds more layers to both characters. Hammond, the stereotypically slimy diplomat, makes a great foil for Laurence, and has a few surprising moments up his sleeve. Granby and Captain Roland are still firmly on my list of personal favourites though.

It’s a shame that the story is so focused on the journey to China, as it means that the other dragons and captains from Laurence and Temeraire’s formation are hardly in this book, and their interactions with the two main characters are always entertaining to read. But I’m sure they’ll be plenty of time for that in the other books in the series.

*

With a more narrowly focused story than its predecessor, Throne of Jade sometimes feels a little too meandering at times, but the characters are still lovable and the action still delights. There is plenty here to keep you reading, and to make you reach for the next book in the series.

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