Fiction Reviews

Black Powder War

(2006) Naomi Novik, Harper Collins, 7.99, pbk, 362 pp, ISBN 978-0-007-2-1917-9


This book follows on from Naomi Novik's first novel, Temeraire (which I have not read) and Throne of Jade, and is set during the time of the Napoleonic wars but introduces an innovative twist on the subject matter and features dragons as a vital part of the war effort. As an avid reader of the Sharpe novels, and having a keen interest in history I found it a little difficult getting to grips with the idea of a fantasy element within a historical setting. Not having read the first book in the series I found it quite a challenge relate to the characters, the internal politics surrounding the protagonists' involvement in the war and the overall concepts.

In this book, Temeraire and his Captain, Will Laurence, are sent orders to return home to England from China and are set with the challenge of retrieving three dragon eggs of high importance which were purchased by the British government from the Ottoman empire. Their journey is not at all straightforward as they face adversity from the weather, politics and various other encounters including meeting other dragons along the way and tangling with the nobility of the areas en route. It is interesting to see how Temeraire, Laurence and their party handle harsh environments and how, for example, Laurence addresses the discipline of the men in his party.

And so I took to the character of Temeraire, who is the central dragon character who is apart from the other dragons in that he, for example, prefers cooked meat and voicing his opinion on combat strategies used by other dragons. Temerarie is well writtenand has a well-rounded character with clear opinions and decided reactions to events that unfold. It was also interesting to read about the different types of dragons and their ways of life - for example, Temeraire, Laurence and their party encounter a group of cave dwelling dragons which, provided interesting interactions between the characters.

I felt the book was a little slow-paced to start with and this made it a bit of a challenge to get into, but various story elements do keep it going. For example the importance of dragon eggs and why they need to be cared for in a certain way, while the references to different types of dragons means that they are more than just a plot device. As I read the book, I still found the idea of dragons and the Napoleonic wars a little hard to visualise but the saving grace in that respect is the way the dragons are written. Another saving grace is where the pacing of the book speeds up as Temeraire and his companions find themselves embroiled in a battle so incorporating drama, action and just a dash of humour.

While I found the politics in the last book a little hard to get involved with at times, they provide more of an intrigue element here as there is always something going on in the background, which maintained my interest. As with the last book, there were points when I felt the pacing was a little slow, but by the same token it enabled the scene to be set for various events that unfold. The travel element also adds a further thread to the book that keeps the story fresh as it moves along, providing challenges and encounters along the way, and this also serves to aid character development.

I do not doubt this book will be ideal for anyone with an interest in fantasy and historical elements, and while it wasn't entirely my cup of tea, I could still appreciate the characters - and the way the dragons are written is just superb. As I found, it's not that easy to get into the book if you have not read the first one - so I'd recommend picking that one up before giving this a try. If you like dragon-related fiction though, this is well worth seeking out.

Susan Griffiths

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