Monday, 6 May 2013

Review: Blood of Tyrants

Blood of Tyrants
Blood of Tyrants by Naomi Novik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was concerned when this volume of the Temeraire series began with three unlikelinesses, but I needn't have worried. It soon improved.

The three unlikely things were:

1. A man wearing a heavy wool coat is swept into the sea and not drowned, but washed up on shore alive. This despite the fact that the reef where he started was far enough out to sea that it apparently couldn't be seen from shore, and despite the fact that:

2. He suffered a head injury, was knocked out, and lost eight years' worth of memory, exactly corresponding to the length of the book series.

3. He was then found by probably the one person in Japan who wouldn't immediately hand him over to the authorities: a man who'd made a vow to help anyone he saw along the road. The vow had something to do with the health of his wife and child, and even though apparently the wife and child died, he's still keeping the vow.

All of those things strained my credulity pretty badly. Fortunately, as I say, the rest of the book was mostly fine, leaving aside the other unlikelinesses that are an integral part of the series. (I'm referring to the existence of dragons, their ability to fly despite their size, the fudged energy requirements for such creatures and the fact that history didn't start to depart substantially from our history until the series began.) The only remaining thing that struck me as unlikely was that two Japanese characters walk past where Laurence, the hero, can overhear them and get significant information, and he can understand them because they're speaking Chinese, which he speaks, rather than Japanese, which he doesn't speak. I couldn't think of any reason for them to speak Chinese other than to enable him to get this information, which is a plot reason, not a realistic reason.

I read this as an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) from Netgalley, and I have to say I was impressed by how clean it was. Other ARCs I've read have been badly in need of copy editing, but this wasn't, and I assume this reflects Naomi Novik's ability as a writer who produces clean drafts. The one definite issue I did spot, which I think I've noticed in the series before, is a single use of "thence" (meaning "from there") to mean "to there". The language has a flavour of the early 19th century, without becoming unreadably ornate, and that's hard to pull off. I'm giving four and a half stars for language (I reserve 5 stars for language that's also beautiful and evocative as well as competent).

I've come to realize that the characters in Temeraire don't change all that much from book to book. They might gather new quirks (Granby's missing hand, Hammond's cocaine addiction), but they're essentially the same people all the time. Part of the point, if not the main point, of the amnesia plot appeared to be to point up how much Laurence had changed since the beginning of the series, but it also underlined how much he'd stayed the same. He's rigidly loyal to his principles, and the things he'd done in the meantime all arose out of those principles which he started with, and still has. His outworking of the principles no longer includes blind loyalty to his government, that's all. This is presumably what makes him the powerful force for change that he is in the fictional world (one of the Russian characters remarks explicitly on how he is always at the centre of significant events).

I like the characters, but I would like to see arcs for them, however slow. I can't really give more than three stars for characters who don't change much except in their outward circumstances.

Plot, now. Plot is an interesting one for this book, because it contains three distinct plots, in three locations (the whole series consists of a world tour, really). The first is, of course, the amnesia-and-rescue plot, and it's almost self-contained, having hardly any impact on the subsequent events. It seems to serve to reestablish the characters and their relationships and history in the reader's mind, as Laurence regains his memory of events. Although it isn't fully resolved until after the second plot has started, it's effectively the Japan plot.

The China plot, though it has its own adventures, is in large part a setup for the third or Russia plot, because it justifies Laurence and Temeraire having a large force of dragons to use to oppose Napoleon's invasion of Russia. This third plot isn't fully resolved by the end of the book, which just stops at a convenient point.

It's an odd structure, but it kept me interested. It was varied, with escapes, rescues, journeys, and the solving of practical and logistical problems mixed in with diplomacy and fighting, and it kept moving (though not without providing some reflective moments). All in all, I think it worked, and I give plot fourish stars (a little less than four, but rounded up).

Setting is a lot of fun in this series. The intelligent dragons, the difference that they make in the 19th-century world, the world tour, all these have a lot of potential which the books mostly live up to. I've mentioned that there are things about it which are highly unlikely, but that's what fantasy is for. Four stars for setting.

Overall, I enjoyed this, despite the less-than-promising beginning, and I'll continue to look forward to new books in the series.

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