“You have convinced me entirely that the beasts are sapient, but I will be damned if I will let you make them political.”
SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR EMPIRE OF IVORY.
OK, I forgive Naomi Novik everything.
Victory of Eagles, the fifth in Novik’s series of Regency military fantasy novels with dragons, follows hard on the heels of two decidedly lacklustre entries, Black Powder War and Empire of Ivory. But where they were disappointing, Victory is impressive: with her lead character Laurence and his faithful dragon Temeraire back on British soil, Novik can once again work with the carefully detailed social and emotional palette that made the first two books so engaging.
Victory is a bittersweet novel, dwelling on the aftermath of Laurence’s treason. Napoleon and his forces invade Britain, and for a while all seems lost, with the British forces in disarray, Temeraire relegated to a dull, empty breeding ground and Laurence imprisoned at sea to ensure Temeraire’s compliance. All seems lost, until Temeraire receives the mistaken news that Laurence is dead, and forms a militia of the dragons in the breeding ground to go and beat the hell out of Napoleon. Which, YAY TEMERAIRE!
I think I’m correct in saying that Victory is the first book in the series to show us Temeraire’s point of view, as he waits miserable and alone in a Welsh breeding ground. Appropriately enough, then, the novel grapples with questions of individualism and heroism: it’s perhaps the darkest entry yet, as Laurence’s moral choices – choices that mark him out as individual, that circumscribe his personhood – are constantly mistaken for political ones, ones that see him manipulating his relationships with others for personal gain. A traitor, he is marked out as other; he is no longer of society, an outcast, unreadable, individual.
And, if we watch Laurence become other, then we also watch Temeraire and his dragons become de-othered, given rank and pay and becoming, precisely, political; it’s almost as if Temeraire and Laurence have changed places, which speaks volumes about the kind of social upheaval that Novik is exploring in these novels (there’s a reason the series is set during wartime, after all). And this is the kind of writing that plays to Novik’s strengths: she’s great at writing societies in flux, societies in fear, societies where constants are breaking down or where accepted truths are simply not true. Complex societies, in other words; places unsure of themselves.
Victory of Eagles is great. It is a much subtler piece of work than Empire of Ivory, a careful and often bittersweet exploration of individuality, heroism and the price of social integration, the give-and-take that being part of society demands. I notice, however, that Laurence and Temeraire are off to Australia next, so I do not hold out much hope for the next book.