Empire of Ivory is the fourth book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and pretty much like the first three in its strengths and weaknesses. I enjoyed it greatly and can’t wait to see what happens in the fifth book, due next summer.
To start with a weakness, there’s pacing, specifically a slow start. By the end of chapter one at the latest, it’s obvious that the characters are going to Africa (I knew it upon reading the sample chapter included with the third book, last June; and it says so outright on the back cover), but it takes another hundred pages for the characters to realize it, though not too many more to get there. I can see the reason for most of the events in these first chapters, but still wish they passed more quickly.
I love the book after it gets to Africa, though, particularly for the chance to see another society’s interactions with dragons. The more alternate the history gets, the happier it makes me: it’s so much fun to see the ramifications played out—especially given Europe’s not-very-alternate status at the start [*]—and especially these ramifications.
[*] Novik talks about the reasons for this halfway through a Strange Horizons interview.
It’s not just worldbuilding, of course; there are exciting bits and wonderful dragons and the continued challenging of Laurence’s default social beliefs. And a dog, briefly:
Laurence had learnt the art of carrying livestock aboard a dragon from Tharkay, in the East, by drugging the beasts with opium before they were loaded on, but they had none of the drug with them at present, so with a dubious spirit of experimentation they put the whining dog aboard by main force instead, and strapped it down. It was inclined to squirm and struggle against the makeshift harness, making several abortive attempts to leap off into the air, until Temeraire lifted away; then after a few yelps of excitement, it sat down on its haunches with its mouth open and tongue lolling out, thrashing its tail furiously with delight . . . .
(Not only is this a great image, but dogs are a theme with my reading this month: Making Money, this, and (in-progress) Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog.)
I also love the ending, not because it’s a cliffhanger but because of the characterization leading up to it and the possibilities for resolving it.
Speaking of characterization, I think the book’s other principal weakness is the characterization of the supporting human characters. The minor ones are sufficiently flat that I have trouble matching names to functions; and even the ones whose names I remember, I couldn’t give more than a couple of adjectives apiece for. It’s not just that British humans in the early 1800s, even aviators, were relatively restrained—though that relative restraint is one of the reasons that the dragons seem so vivid. Instead, I think this is a result of Laurence’s point-of-view, which makes me wonder what the series might look like in Patrick O’Brian-style omniscient. (As much as I enjoyed Temeraire’s point-of-view in “Feast or Famine”, it wouldn’t be an improvement in this regard.)
A spoiler post follows.