Demonstrating again that she has become one of the best prose stylists in fantasy fiction, Naomi Novik's "Crucible of Gold" is one of the most compelling chapters in her fantasy and alternate history "Temeraire" series. Prior comparisons with Patrick O'Brian are definitely most apt here, in her mesmerizing accounts of Pacific tropical isles and South American rain forests, that rank easily alongside those depicted in O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. Equally commendable is her extensive description of Incan society and culture, which figure prominently in "Crucible of Gold", the 7th novel in the critically acclaimed, quite popular, "Temeraire" series. Though I admire the late Anne McCaffrey's work, including the "Dragonriders of Pern" series, that fine oeuvre is being surpassed by Naomi Novik's , since she has displayed consistently, a higher literary standard in each of her "Temeraire" novels. Without question, Novik is a writer worthy of comparison not only with McCaffrey, but also, with the likes of Neil Gaiman and Michael Swanwick; her latest novel brilliantly reaffirms that.
Restored unexpectedly to his former rank and seniority in His Britannic Majesty's Aerial Corps, Captain Laurence, Temeraire and their friends - both human and dragon - are compelled to take a hazardous sea voyage to South America, once more escorting diplomat Arthur Hammond, hoping to aid the exiled Portugese royal family in Rio De Janeiro, besieged by both the French and the Southern African Tswana dragonriders (The native people described in "Empire of Ivory", the fourth "Temeraire" novel). Enduring shipwreck, capture by the French, and attacks by savage beasts and enemy military dragons, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves engaged in yet another epic struggle against the French, who are seeking to add South America as yet another large chunk of their vast worldwide empire. Laurence, Hammond and Temeraire will be compelled to have a battle of wits with a vainglorious emperor of the Old World and a mysterious empress of the New, setting the stage for an unexpected return to another great empire, seeking an ally willing to join Great Britain's solitary struggle against the Napoleonic French Empire.
Will Laurence and his faithful dragon Temeraire have been living in exile in Australia for the past few years.
But building pavilions doesn't make for a very exciting book, so Naomi Novik's seventh novel is all about bringing the awesome pair back into action. It's a solid, tight historical fantasy that blasts Laurence and Temeraire into yet another strange exotic place, complete with shipwrecks, Frenchmen, whales, mutiny and feathered dragons.
Laurence is offered his commission back, because the British government has decided that it needs his help once more -- Brazil is in turmoil because of the Tswana empire, and the French have thrown Spain into chaos. Despite Laurence's misgivings, he and Temeraire leave on a ship for Brazil -- along with Demane, Granby, Iskierka and Kulingile.
But near the end of their voyage, their ship is destroyed, and the survivors find themselves marooned in the land of the Incas, ruled by dragons and not too pleased to see them. As they work their way to Rio, Temeraire and Laurence find themselves embroiled in another diplomatic disaster that can only end in another battle.
Temeraire and Laurence have gone to Asia, the Middle-East, Africa, Europe and even far-off Australia. Since they're rapidly running out of far-off places to visit, it's time for the pair to head off to South and Central America, which allows Novik to further flesh out her fictional world -- she mingles real history (Brazil's slavery issues) with fictional dragoncentric social customs.
The story also moves at a quicker pace than "Tongues of Serpents," with more dragon-fighting, fiery shipwrecks and a big climactic battle. Novik's prose has the stately, detailed quality of 19th-century novels, but she also imbues it with lots of vivid details ("blue light shining cold off the metal and casting a strange grey color over his face").
We also see how Laurence and Temeraire have matured after their exile. Laurence is now very aware that his conscience may be at odds with his orders, and struggles with the loss of a personal friend. And Temeraire is less impulsive and more thoughtful, as evidenced by his talk with the ancient Curicuillor. He still has a tinge of possessiveness, since he doesn't like the idea of Laurence having kids.
There is also some nice development for both the other dragons and their captains -- Iskierka and Granby hash out their differences, and Kulingile is seeking to assert himself now that he's no longer an undersized runt.
The captain and dragon are older and wiser, but Naomi Novik's strong writing and even stronger characters make "Crucible of Gold" a delight. It'll be a long wait to see what happens next.
on August 13, 2012
With Tongues of Serpents turning out to be a major disappointment for me, I wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to give Crucible of Gold a shot or not. Yet as the first volume of the three-book cycle that should bring the Temeraire series to a close, I was curious to see if Naomi Novik could recapture the magic that made the first few installments such original reads.
Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. This series has been losing steam for a while now, and Crucible of Gold is more of the same.
Here's the blurb:
Naomi Novik’s beloved series returns, with Capt. Will Laurence and his fighting dragon Temeraire once again taking to the air against the broadsides of Napoleon’s forces and the friendly—and sometimes not-so-friendly—fire of British soldiers and politicians who continue to suspect them of divided loyalties, if not outright treason.
For Laurence and Temeraire, put out to pasture in Australia, it seems their part in the war has come to an end just when they are needed most. Newly allied with the powerful African empire of the Tswana, the French have occupied Spain and brought revolution and bloodshed to Brazil, threatening Britain’s last desperate hope to defeat Napoleon.
So the British government dispatches Arthur Hammond from China to enlist Laurence and Temeraire to negotiate a peace with the angry Tswana, who have besieged the Portuguese royal family in Rio—and as bait, Hammond bears an offer to reinstate Laurence to his former rank and seniority as a captain in the Aerial Corps. Temeraire is delighted by this sudden reversal of fortune, but Laurence is by no means sanguine, knowing from experience that personal honor and duty to one’s country do not always run on parallel tracks.
Laurence and Temeraire—joined by the egotistical fire-breather Iskierka and the still-growing Kulingile, who has already surpassed Temeraire in size—embark for Brazil, only to meet with a string of unmitigated disasters that leave the dragons and their human friends forced to make an unexpected landing in the hostile territory of the Inca empire, where they face new unanticipated dangers.
Now with the success of the mission balanced on a razor’s edge, and failure looking more likely by the minute, the unexpected arrival of an old enemy will tip the scales toward ruin. Yet even in the midst of disaster, opportunity may lurk—for one bold enough to grasp it.
The first four volumes of this series more or less revitalized the genre, offering us dragons with a different and quite original twist. I'm not sure if it's because Crucible of Gold is the seventh installment, but it appears that the magic is truly gone. Novik seems to have grown complacent, happy to offer simple, formulaic, and episodic works in style and tone. Indeed, the last few books have done very little to further the overall plot and feel like interludes while everything else occurs "off stage."
As was the case with its predecessor, Crucible of Gold is mostly filler material. Weighing in at a very short 288 pages, one would think that it would mostly be important material that moves the plot forward. Not much actually takes place, however, which makes me wonder just what the author has in store for us in the last two volumes. I was expecting to see storylines coming together and revealing or at least hinting at the finale to come. But no. . .
In the past, I've always loved the author's depiction of the various locales the characters visited. With an historian's eye for details, Novik's depiction of Australia, the Inca Empire, and Brazil made for an evocative narrative. She has always excelled at that, and this book is no different. Unfortunately, what is also no different is that the better part of the novel turns out to be an uninspired travelogue chronicling Laurence and Temeraire's journey from Australia to South America.
The characterization is decidedly subpar. I used to find the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire and the rest of the dragons to be engaging, yet I fear that somehow it got old a few books back. The interaction between Temeraire, Iskierka and Kulingile, especially, has become quite annoying at times. Consider the fact that a lackluster supporting cast brings very little to the story and you end up with a characterization that leaves a lot to be desired.
Mind you, there is some good stuff in there. There are a number of revelations and plot twists that are indeed satisfying. Trouble is, they are few and far between in this travelogue. The endgame is rushed for no reason I could fathom, bringing this novel to an end in a manner that will likely fail to please readers. The ending is interesting, though, promising a few unanticipated surprises for the forthcoming installments to come.
I used to be a big fan of Naomi Novik's Temeraire saga, and that from before the first volume even hit the shelves of bookstores everywhere. And yet, the proliferation of sequels whose pertinence seems questionable sort of killed it for me. There are so many existing storylines to build on to bring back what made the novels so entertaining in the first place. It is now evident that the decision to split this series into nine volumes when there was material for maybe five or six has hurt the overall quality of the books. Which is too bad, for the Temeraire series was a winner.
Although it gets better toward the end, Crucible of Gold can be nothing but another disappointment. . .
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