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Empire of Ivory
Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 544 pages

Empire of Ivory
Naomi Novik
Naomi Novik was born in New York in 1973. A first-generation American, she was raised on Polish fairy tales, Baba Yaga, and Tolkien. She studied English Literature at Brown University and did graduate work in Computer Science at Columbia University before leaving to participate in the design and development of the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide. She decided to try her hand at novels. Temeraire / His Majesty's Dragon was her first.

Naomi Novik Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Throne of Jade and Black Powder War
SF Site Review: His Majesty's Dragon
SF Site Review: His Majesty's Dragon
SF Site Review: Temeraire / His Majesty's Dragon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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Dragons (horses, cats -- other creatures realistic as well as fantastical) connecting mentally with humans has been a popular trope for at least fifty years. But until Naomi Novik came along with the idea that, hey, the super-powerful, utterly devoted sidekick creature might actually have a life of its own, the sidekicks remained pretty much that, sidekicks. Rare indeed was an interests or desire or even any action outside of the concerns of the human protagonist. Civil rights for dragons?

We caught hints of this new idea in Novik's first novel in this series, His Majesty's Dragon. That one began more conventionally, combining the tropes of tall ship adventures à la Patrick O'Brian with super-powered sidekick impressment as Captain William Laurence captures a dragon egg from a French frigate. The egg opens, and Laurence finds himself connected to this baby dragon. But the second half of the book leaves the tall ships behind as Laurence's life is wrenched completely around, and he has to learn to be an aviator in the Aerial Corps. Each succeeding book has removed the reader far from the expected limits of those tropes; Novik has worked on how strategy and tactics would change with aerial support, what dragon flight would mean to communication with the naval fleet, but most of all she's been developing the notion of draco culture as something other than human dependent -- even in a human-dominated world.

At the beginning of Empire of Ivory, which is the fourth book in Novik's series, Laurence and his dragon team are returning to England after a spot of hot fighting. They have been away a long time, and expect (and deserve) a hero's welcome, but instead they hardly are noticed. People are inexplicably tense, and the dragon fields seem empty and untended. The truth soon comes out, despite efforts to hide it for obvious military reasons: a devastating illness is killing off the dragons one by one.

After some excavation the British think they have isolated the disease, and Laurence and his team are sent to Africa to find and bring back a cure.

In Africa, dragons both take care of and feed from elephant caravans while protecting the native villagers. This protection includes waging war against England's slave-seeking colonists, in a nifty twist that puts Laurence and his band into serious rock-and-hard place territory. There is action, history, serious talk about paradigm and civil rights for species in between the attacks, captures, rescues, and glimpses of dragons interacting with humans in yet another fascinating cultural context. What they find, how they get home, the profoundly unexpected results, make an accelerating rollercoaster of a read.

In all four books, the Georgette Heyer flavor to the Regency-era dialogue, the famous characters popping up in unexpected times or places -- some who died in real life alive now, some who lived are dead in this story -- all build evidence that this story takes place one universe over. But in this book even the most passive reader is finally going to realize that, wait a minute, if this and this and this can happen, who's to say Napoleon is going to be defeated at Waterloo -- or even go there at all?

I think Naomi Novik is a terrific storyteller. Some readers of the earlier books seem to find Laurence flat, and because he's the main POV, the story as seen through his eyes somewhat flat. Indeed, he is no Jack Aubrey. But that's not because Novik isn't capable of writing as complex a character as O'Brian's Aubrey. With Laurence she reminds us without hectoring that the time -- the Napoleonic era -- for all the romantic poets and the exquisite Directoire furniture brought over by émigrés, was a time when manners were important, when everyone knew one's place in the world. When typical people's view of how the world worked was fairly circumscribed. Novik depicts believable reactions when people step outside of their expected behavioral roles, for example the women dragon riders and the decidedly mixed attitudes toward them on the part of ordinary citizens. The variety of other characters, the highs and lows of events and consequences, all make it clear that we're in the hands of someone who made deliberate choices about POV and voice. Laurence represents our human eyes just opening onto a strange new world.

Because this is really Temeraire's story.

I can hardly wait for the next.

Copyright © 2007 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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