Fiction Reviews

Tongues of Serpents

(2011) Naomi Novik, Harper Voyager, £7.99, pbk, 347pp, ISBN 978-0-007-25678-5


This is the sixth of Naomi Novik’s ‘Temeraire’ novels, but for once I have the pleasure of writing about a series which I have actually been following. Having been recommended to it by Jim Campbell of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle, I began at random with Victory of Eagles, the fifth one, then went to the first, Temeraire, and worked forward – catching up just in time for this one.

The supposition in this alternative history is that humanity shares the Earth with dragons, who are sentient, but it’s taken the stimulus of the Napoleonic Wars to bring the two species together. In the west, particularly in Britain, dragons are still feared by the public and treated much like flying horses by the military leadership, although their handlers know better. As in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, the dragons choose their partners on hatching and become impressed on them, but here there’s no overt paranormal element: dragons have excellent hearing in the egg and come out with the power of speech, sometimes with several languages, and well aware of what’s been going on around them – frequently giving ignorant or arrogant humans a comeuppance as a result.

In the British armed forces, the new flying arm is regarded with suspicion and considerable disdain, viewed as undisciplined and erratic - like the RFC in the first World War, not least because women are impressed as well as men, and rise to command rank. Novik’s hero Laurence is a former naval officer, involuntarily impressed when he captured a French prize bearing a particularly important egg, whereupon his family disowned him and his fiancée terminated their engagement. The egg was an Imperial thoroughbred being gifted to Bonaparte from China, and to resolve that situation Laurence has become an honorary member of the Chinese royal family, and narrowly escaped hanging for sharing the cure for a dragon plague with the French. Temeraire has become an agitator for equal status for dragons, as they have in China, raising interesting parallels with the anti-slavery movement in Britain (Laurence’s father is an abolitionist). The compromise solution has been to banish them both to Australia, where the former Captain Bligh has been deposed as Governor in Sydney. Now read on…

As Naomi Novik tells us in a historical note at the end, the timeline of this alternative history began to diverge from ours when Temeraire was hatched in Europe. But what began as ‘Hornblower with dragons’ is now beginning to diverge from ours in major ways. In the previous Empire of Ivory, Britain’s colonies in South Africa fell to a new, all-African empire whose forces, wealth and use of dragons bids fair to end the slave trade at source, and change US history more radically than Harry Turtledove did in How Few Remain. In this book the Australian interior looks still less familiar, the domain of land-burrowing bunyips which are as deadly as wingless dragons. Offshore, the seas are as warm with sea-serpents, harnessed by the Chinese to speed up trade on the north coast with emerging Aborigine nations. The British attack on Darwin (as we know it), an interesting parallel with the Japanese attacks of World War 2, goes disastrously wrong – and with what we hear from a distance of events in the Mediterranean and the Americas, if and when Laurence does get back to Britain, it will be to a very different world from the one we know. The main purpose of this novel is to bridge that gap, and the long journey south to north over Australia marks the transition.

The series appeals to me because C.S. Forester was a major influence in my early years – I was heavily into the sea, in fiction and non-fiction, before I transferred the biggest part of my interest to space. For my own story set in the 19th century Royal Navy, In the Arctic, Out of Time, (IASFM, July 1989), I did substantial research on the history but I drew on Forester for atmosphere and language, so I know what it takes to get something like this started. Some years ago I looked at continuing the story-line, and when I saw how much more research would be needed to take history in a new direction, I laid it aside until I would have more time; but clearly, Ms. Novik’s done that work and now it’s paying off. She’s given several hints that the next turn in the story will take Laurence and Temeraire to India, and it should be worth waiting for.

Duncan Lunan

See also David Allkins review of Tongues of Serpents.

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