Fiction Reviews

Tongues of Serpents

(2010) Naomi Novik, Harper Voyager, hrdbk, £17.99, 347pp, ISBN 978-0-007-25677-8


Captain Laurence and his dragon Temeraire, have been charged with treason against Britain, despite their defence of the realm, during the wars against Napoleon. They are sent to the colony in Australia, populated by British convicts, to guard three dragon eggs, to be handed over to officers when they hatch. However, the former governor, William Bligh, (yes, that one) has been overthrown in a coup in Sydney, so can not grant a pardon to Laurence. Subsequently Laurence and Temeraire are assigned to an expedition to find a crossing through the mountains and establish a route for cattle. But when one of the eggs is stolen on the expedition, it becomes a race to retrieve it, while surviving the dangers that wait in the outback.

This is the first title I have read in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novel series. While it does not start off with a ‘previously on’ chapter, it is possible to pick up the narrative from the beginning. The interaction between the human officer characters, their subordinates, and the dragons is entertaining to follow. Novik enjoys writing the descriptions of the Outback, which is a landscape that does not feel over-explored and offers a sense of otherworldliness. The novel empathises the difficulties of surviving in a dry, hostile environment, even before the practicalities of feeding dragons is addressed.

Novik does create an interesting alternate world, which feels believable. There are constant little details about how dragon biology operates, adding depth to the narrative. There is also the inventive use of one type of familiar monster and another that has been rather under-used in recent years. The narrative features a couple of exciting battles between the dragons, humans and opposing forces. Yet, there is a sense creeping in of disillusionment among the characters, as if the honour and the glory have faded to be replaced by struggles in administration and internal politics. For me this added another level of realism. The end of the pursuit for the egg also takes the story into a new direction adding another layer of political difficulty that the lead characters find themselves trapped in.

The novel however does have a sense of anti-climax, as if an important scene is missing. Still, I found this book to be an engaging read, with characters that I was interested in following and a world that has been carefully constructed. The ending is open enough to allow for the possibility of further adventures, which I would be happy to follow.

David Allkins

Duncan Lunan also has a review of this title: Tongues of Serpents.

See also reviews of the other novels in this series: Temeraire; Throne of Jade and Black Powder War.

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