“I am very tired of this Government, which I have never seen, and which is always insisting that I must do disagreeable things, and does no good to anybody.”
The sequel to the lovely and immensely satisfying Regency-era military fantasy Temeraire, Throne of Jade continues the loveliness with a well-thought-out, beautifully written, quietly touching story about slavery, and duty, and the perils of the sea.
The Chinese Emperor having apparently taken offence at the use of Temeraire, a revered Celestial dragon, in dishonourable combat against the French, Laurence and Temeraire are forced to take the long and difficult sea-journey to China in the hopes of keeping the Chinese government on the British side so that the ports remain open to them and China doesn’t suddenly decide to side with the French. There’s no guarantee when they get there that Laurence will be allowed to keep Temeraire; which, of course, makes the journey very hard on both of them, with its end in doubt.
Like the earlier novel, Throne of Jade‘s strength lies in its delineation of relationships: that between Laurence and Temeraire, of course, which is adorable but also becomes increasingly strained as they reach China; that on board ship, between Laurence’s aviator crew, the sailors of the British Navy, and the Chinese delegation, which again sees tensions rising over a period of seven months with a dragon on board; that between nations. Novik is very, very good at laying out the personal and social webs that connect person to person in these societies, the pressures that combine to create very specific political landscapes, and using those webs and those landscapes to think about the points where different cultures clash, and what happens at those points. So: though Temeraire has grown up with Laurence, he essentially belongs to a different kind of culture as a British dragon than Laurence does as a British serviceman. He’s a natural commentator on Regency society, interrogating the practice of slavery, and why human women can’t fight when dragon women can, and how the British treat intelligent beings. And then we have the clashes on board ship, between the aviators, with little to do and a rather lax hierarchy, and the Navy men, superstitious, strongly hierarchical and rowdy. This gap is, of course, bridged by Laurence, who used to be a Navy captain; but even in this position things can be tricky politically for the two military cultures. Misunderstandings occur, bad blood surfaces, fear and anger circulates, and yet when crisis occurs aviators and sailors must somehow pull together to save the ship.
This foreshadows in microcosm the most interesting meeting of cultures, which is, of course, that of China and England. The questions Novik raises, here as throughout the book, are cogent and important ones: How can we interpret other cultures – through our eyes or through theirs? Do we unquestioningly adhere to unfamiliar customs, or do we ask what they mean to the culture in which they belong? There’s a bit where Laurence and some British officials in Canton port are discussing the kowtow to the Emperor: the British ambassador holds that it’s a local custom, no more degrading from the Chinese perspective than a formal bow would be in England; but another British official reveals that it’s actually a form of tribute reserved for tributary princes and conquered enemies, which makes it problematic for a British visitor to the court. The novel everywhere complicates a simplistic reading of the other in favour of contextual cultural understanding. Yes, some Chinese dragons are starving; but they are free to starve in a way which British dragons are not, fed and fattened as Temeraire and his friends are for war. Yes, the Chinese aviator corps are made up exclusively of women; but the reasons for this are based in the same misogyny that prevents British women from fighting (unless they dress up as men). Yes, there are mysterious and sinister happenings going on at the Chinese court; but these have their roots not in some conspiracy against the world but in exactly the same kind of political machinations that have driven Laurence and Temeraire halfway across the globe. This is not to say that Novik flattens Chinese culture, or implies that it’s the same as British culture; at least, I don’t feel that’s what Throne of Jade is doing. Only, she refuses to allow her readers to fall into simplistic paradigms of what the other might look like. The state of China is rich with history and tradition and humanity and autonomy.
Also: TEMERAIRE. Please can I have my own dragon? Please?
Throne of Jade is possibly even better than Temeraire, and I’m supremely glad that there are like a bajillion more books in the series. Bring on the Regency dragons.