Review: Blood of Tyrants

Blood of Tyrants is the eighth in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series; there’s just one novel left to go. Which is interesting, because although it trundles on in much the same manner as the preceding books have, it also brings some things into focus, I assume in order to set up for the Grand Finale.

It sees Our Hero, Captain William Laurence of the Aerial Corps, washed overboard during a sea voyage to China. He’s washed up onto the shores of Japan, a country notorious for its hostility to foreigners; what’s more, he’s lost all memory of the Aerial Corps and thinks he’s still a navy captain with a fiancee and the prospect of an illustrious career.

The novel alternates between his perspective, navigating an utterly alien culture with no idea of how he came to be there, and that of Temeraire, who of course is beside himself at Laurence’s loss and is determined to find him – much to the dismay of the captains of the other dragons.

That’s not the interesting bit, though. The interesting bit is what happens later, when Laurence and Temeraire are eventually reunited: they find themselves leading a vast contingent of Chinese dragons into Russia, where Napoleon’s forces are threatening to crush the thinning list of Britain’s allies. A key plot point here is the Russians’ abominable treatment of their dragons, who (in direct contrast to the Chinese dragons, who have citizenship and titles and wealth) are kept hobbled in breeding grounds, or starved as couriers, unless they happen to be heavyweights, who are merely bribed with large piles of gold instead. The Russians are afraid of their dragons: afraid of going back to days when feral dragons would prey upon vulnerable villages and carry off maidens to eat, etc. A particularly nasty French tactic is to make this story come true, setting the starved, imprisoned dragons free to carry off Russian supplies and, in many cases, Russian fighters. The French general who leads this tactic offers up the defence that the Russian treatment of the dragons is clearly wrong; Laurence agrees, but thinks to himself that to redress that wrong in this manner, which can only make the dragons’ lot worse in the long run by making the Russians turn against them, is irresponsible.

This ending, then, really brings into focus, retroactively, what the series has been about, and where its final battles (so to speak) will be fought. It’s clear that the Napoleonic Wars, far from being background political detail, are central to Novik’s plot; it’s also clear that dragons, and specifically the treatment of dragons, is key to resolving the wars. Those cultures that respect dragons – France and China, mainly – are stronger; those that fear them – chiefly Britain and Russia – have a harder time.

Why’s that interesting? Well, I think that what’s been going on across the arc of the series is a kind of socio-cultural disintegration. Early in the series, I suggested that it might be depicting a change from an Augustan social culture to a Romantic, individualistic one; from one based on shame to one based on personal guilt. I think we can broaden that reading a little. Laurence is changing, thanks to his encounter with the Other, in the form of Temeraire. His amnesia is a symbol of the disintegration of his social identity, the total destabilisation of all his cultural touchstones, as a result of that encounter; even when his memory is inevitably restored, the gulf between the man he was and the man he is is unbridgeable. A central tension of Blood of Tyrants involves him re-learning of his own treason at the end of Empire of Ivory: before he recovers his memory, he cannot fathom why he would have done such a thing. It’s a stark reminder of how far he has come from the Regency Everyman of Temeraire.

And the world is changing, too. The total destabilisation of Laurence’s amnesia is reflected on a grand scale in the global destabilisation enacted through the Napoleonic Wars, which have affected every continent Laurence has visited in the course of the series. Really, it’s a destabilisation of history: because Novik’s been writing in not only her dragons, the Other that has changed everything, but also everyone else who has been written out of history – the female officer, the black officer, the gay officer, the unmarried lovers, the woman who decides her own prospects, a whole swathe of sophisticated non-Western cultures. Not only does her fictional world have to change radically to accommodate a new reality in which dragons are key citizens whose treatment can decide the very fate of nations (just as Laurence is astonished and dismayed to learn of his treason, we are astonished and dismayed to return to Europe and find dragons being mistreated, as they were in Britain towards the beginning of the series); our own shared notions of history have to change radically, disintegrate and be rebuilt, to fit in what had previously been alien.

This is fascinating. And if this is the series’ denouement, I can’t wait to read its finale.

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