Ugh, you gals, I finalllllllllllllllllly did it!
Sorry that took so long! It’s partly because this was one big-ass series (9 books), and partly because during the last week I got a weird stomach flu that kept me from doing anything other than throwing up and ruining my best friend’s birthday. But I’m here! I did it! Yay me!
This series was great. I loved it from the first book, but early on there were a few problems that I wasn’t really sure how she was going to address. How do you make somebody root for colonial England, knowing what they’ve done? How do you then set them against Napoleon, when he’s treating his dragons better than those he’s fighting? How do you reconcile what you know about the world, with the belief system that your main character is going to have because of the time and place that he came from? This was set in a pretty savage part of human history, right in the thick of European colonialism, a time and place with countless political sticky wickets to get stuck in.
And honestly? I think Naomi Novik did about as good of a job as a person could do. She skillfully separates your sympathy from the government that’s fighting the war to the people fighting it, by pitting them against each other whenever the government does something immoral (like still supporting the slave trade, or deliberately spreading a disease among the rest of the dragons in the world, to give British aerial forces superiority) and showing them as being as foul and self-serving as they were (and are, and have always been). By the end of the books Will seems to have completely transferred his sense of duty from said government, the thing he used to look up to, to just the general good of the world. He does what needs to be done, no matter where that is or who it’s for. He makes it easy to cheer for him.
I spent some time on Will’s (the main character, other than Temeraire) personal growth in the last post, so I won’t go on and on about it here. Suffice it to say that he continually learns his way past his problematic English ideas about women, and doesn’t seem to really have any problem with racism or homophobia (to be fair, he does get hellllla uncomfortable when one of the party tells him that he’s gay, but I felt it was more his upper-crusty British mortification at somebody having to reveal anything personal about themselves to him, especially about sex, than it was homophobia). He’s a good character, easy to love and stand behind.
As for Napoleon, even though he does seem to have some good points about the treatment of dragons (who in this universe are intelligent and feeling creatures), she makes it pretty clear that his motives are selfish and that he’d do anything to get the supremacy that he craves. The sheer amount of bodies he climbs over to get what he wants solves the problem of connecting with him too much pretty neatly, though Naomi still manages to write him in a way where I didn’t hate him. I still understood him and why he was doing what he did. I had some sympathy for him, just not a lot.
One of the other things that I really, really dug about these books was getting to see how Novik had imagined our world would be changed by having these big, hulking, thinking weapons in it. Because dragons were everywhere, the invention of cannons as effective means of waging war didn’t knock askew the balance of power the way that they did in our world (it was actually more complicated than that, but I’m trying to keep this blog post from completely getting away from me). I’ve always wondered what the world would have looked like if British (and other European) people hadn’t fucked it so hard, if they’d left American and African cultures to develop unmolested. Novik takes a run at what that would look like and it’s great, smart and well thought out. About as good as anybody not within those cultures themselves could’ve done. It scratched a fiction itch I’ve had for a long time. Plus it was just satisfying to see the English try and do all the shitty things that they’d done throughout our history, but fail miserably.
As much as I loved the books, I do have one bone to pick with Naomi Novik, and it’s this: Tenzin and Will. Are you kidding me? You spent the whole series building this beautiful relationship between the two, where they depended on and anchored one another, where they understood and cared for each other (Tenzin was the one that stopped Will from compromising himself morally when he was in despair over being branded a traitor. And when Will lost his memory, seeing Tenzin was the thing that brought it back. Not Temeraire, not his essentially adopted daughter, not his friends. Tenzin) and in the end…nothing. Well, not nothing. They built a wonderful life long friendship blah blah blah. But I was expecting, hoping for, more. It would have been nice to finally get a relationship in fiction between two masculine, heroic characters that generally identify as straight (if you, like me, are looking for varying representation of LGBTQ people in fiction, hit up Black Sails. It’s way, way better than it’s lousy first season would have you believe), and it really seemed like that’s what she was building up to, and then just…nope. I know you can’t always get what you want, but I really, really wanted this and was super disappointed when it didn’t happen.
Okay! I recommend this series for alternate history nerds, dragon lovers (I feel like that might mean something weirder than I meant it to. No judgement!), and anybody who likes long-ass, satisfying, well written, well-thought out fantasy series. Novik put a boatload of work into these books, and it shows. It’s been a while since I liked a series this much. Just more gays next time please!
Ps. I did have one more tiny quibble that I just can’t bring myself to leave without mentioning. In one of the books Will loses his memory, which is a story trope that I haaaaaaaaaaate, and one that went on for a lot longer than it should have. I’m not really sure why she included it. The story doesn’t seem like it would’ve changed that much if he’d known who he was all along. I kind of held out hope that it was to set up how important Tenzin had become to him, but that ended up being nothing so…yeah. Not really what that was about, but it wasn’t for me. If you’re like me and you hate that kind of thing, be warned, it’s a big portion of one of the biggest books. Other than that though, dive in!