Review: Tongues of Serpents

“The last thing you or Temeraire will ever give anyone is quiet obedience. Have you considered it might be better not to try?”

Naomi Novik

This review contains spoilers.

novik-naomi-tongues-of-serpentsTongues of Serpents, the sixth novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, sees Laurence and his dragon Temeraire transported to Australia for their treason in Empire of Ivory. With them go three dragon eggs, meant to start a new dragon covert in Sydney, together with a ragtag bunch of third-rate officers willing to trade a comfortable life in England for the chance to captain a dragon, and the fire-breathing dragon Iskierka with her captain Granby.

Soon after they arrive in the new colony of Sydney, the party take on a mission to scout out possible routes for a road into the interior of the vast continent. A few weeks into this expedition, one of the dragon eggs is stolen, and the party is forced to pursue the thieves into the outback to recover such a valuable asset.

The novel begins, then, with Laurence in disgrace, cast out from the networks of power and privilege which make up Regency England, a mere Mr instead of a Captain, generally despised by Englishmen (there are no women in this novel, apart from a few letters from Jane Roland, Laurence’s sort-of girlfriend). And the novel ends with Laurence eschewing that society altogether; refusing the pardon Sydney’s governor offers him to remain a private citizen in Australia, sequestered from public life and politics, living as himself and himself alone.

The novel thus traces out a trajectory from outcast to outsider, from one who is punished by society to one who refuses to accept that punishment, and it seems to me that it’s a narrative at least partly about the paradoxical power of those whom society others. Laurence’s journey into the outback can be read as a kind of movement between two poles; he moves further and further from “civilisation” (British Sydney) into the depredations of the Australian desert, his crew preyed upon by mythical bunyips, unknowable in their monstrosity; at the low point of the story the very landscape seems to attack them in storm and fire and flood. But then the pendulum rises again: the bunyips become comprehensible, bribable with fresh meat, almost a comfort in the wilderness; the trail of the stolen egg is picked up again; and Our Heroes reach a new city, a vibrant and multicultural trading port operated by the Chinese in joint venture with the local people, the Larrakia. (They use sea serpents to transport goods between China and Australia, which may be the best thing I’ve read for months.) The point, of course, is to dramatise a moving-away from “normal” society, an escape from the gravitational well of British imperialism, through the no-mans-land of the abject (cast off and yet not entirely without) into a new way of seeing and a new way of being which is diametrically opposed and yet representationally similar to the old way.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I feel like Tongues of Serpents‘ project, as it were, is to talk about how an encounter with what is othered by Western society (sea serpents, the East, Aboriginal people) challenges the very foundations of that society. Laurence’s journey out of narrow-minded British imperialism allows him to conceive of another way of being, to opt-out of the oppressive structures of that imperialism, and thus to challenge its power by refusing to participate in the value it places on reputation (the pardon the governor offers at the end of the book would, after all, restore Laurence at least partly in the eyes of society to respectableness).

I think (in a bleary Friday-evening sort of way) that there are some representational issues, here, with giving the project of escaping imperialism to a white man while sidelining actual minorities (women and POCs are reduced, it seems to me, to tokens and signs rather than subjectivities, and I can’t help comparing Novik’s male-centric narrative to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which does much of the same work but with two main female characters and a main black character); it feels somewhat self-defeating. It’s also a pity that the arc of the series appears to be moving away from where Novik’s talents lie as a writer: she’s very, very good at delineating the tangled social webs of power her Regency characters inhabit, while Laurence looks to be moving away from exactly such webs, becoming a hermit on a New South Wales farm. I’m beginning to feel that, barring the excellent Throne of Jade, this is perhaps the wrong kind of story for Novik to be writing; her Uprooted is deeper, richer and fuller, and I’m kind of glad that the Temeraire series is winding down to a close.

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