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27 May 2024

Temeraire by Naomi Novik, Book 4: Empire of Ivory

Empire of Ivory: Book Four of Temeraire
by Naomi Novik

Empire of Ivory begins right after the conclusion of Black Powder War, with Temeraire and his crew making it back to Britain and finding out why Britain's dragons did not come to the aid of Europe as Napoleon's forces overran the continent: a deadly sickness has spread among the dragons, incapacitating most of them.

Originally published: 2007
Acquired and read: January 2024

Without giving too much away, it turns out that Temeraire is immune to the sickness, probably as a result of something that happened to him in Africa on his long sea voyage from Britain to China in Throne of Jade. Thus, reluctantly, Will Laurence, Temeraire, and a group of sick dragons must set out for Cape Town to see if they can recover and reproduce whatever it was that made Temeraire immune.

Unfortunately, though there are lots of good moments of characterization and worldbuilding throughout the book, what results was to my mind the dullest of the Temeraire books thus far. I had a grad school professor who use to talk about the "paradox of tedium": how did you communicate the tediousness of work in your novel without the book itself becoming tedious? But if you didn't make the book itself tedious, then you failed to capture the emotional experience your book was supposedly about. I don't know if that quite applies to Empire of Ivory, but too much of the book is spent in a state of stasis, waiting to see if something works again and again and again, without much to pull the reader along. We do eventually get some more interest and complexity, and the book ends up delving into the role of dragons in (an) African society. There's some good stuff here, though the book doesn't go into as much depth as Throne of Jade did with China, and more tantalizes than spells out. It ends up feeling like a sideshow from the main plot rather than central to it.

That said, the last couple chapters were brilliant. As I am coming to realize is often the case with Novik's work, all the pieces have been carefully put into position to create a climax, and even when the positioning isn't intrinsically interesting, the climax is still highly effective. I may have found Empire of Ivory a weaker book (which isn't to say it's a bad one), but it still left me eagerly anticipating the next installment. How are they going to get out of this one?

Every ten months I read an installment of Temeraire. Next up in sequence: Victory of Eagles

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