Temeraire: Black Powder War
by Naomi Novik
Review by John Berlyne
Voyager Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0007219156
Date: 02 January, 2007 List Price £14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The UK edition of Novik's third Temeraire novel is a smart hardcover edition from HarperCollins. A far nicer set of books than the US paperback editions, these novels may well - following Peter Jackson's highly publicised acquisition of the film rights to the series - be a sensible investment for the canny book collector. Reviewed this issue. I've enthused most fulsomely in my two reviews of Naomi Novik's Temeraire previous novels – Temeraire and Temeraire: Throne of Jade . This series has deservedly garnered heaps of praise, and from all tiers of the industry. There cannot be many debut authors who sport quotes from Stephen King on the front of their first novel and go on to make highly publicised sales of the film rights to none other than Peter Jackson! This last has caused the first edition prices of Novik's debut to now be changing hands for over ten times the cover price, if not more - so more fool you if you didn't get hold of one following my glowing review!
Now we come to the third novel in this sequence - or to be precise, in this first sequence, for it is already well published that Novik is busy writing a second Temeraire trilogy. And why not? There is certainly plenty of mileage to be had out of this growing franchise, and should Jackson's film option ever get made, it's good that Novik should be writing more novels now, given that if a Jackson movie is successful, she may well be tempted never to have to work again!
Having so enjoyed the first novel, I noted in my review of the follow-up Throne of Jade, that it seemed, in comparison, somewhat thinner in the plotting. In this observation, it transpires that I put my finger on a weakness in Novik's work, for Temeraire: Black Powder War suffers even more acutely from this law of diminishing returns.
Aviator Captain Laurence and his companion dragon Temeraire have now completed their important diplomatic mission to China and are preparing for the long sea journey home when, to everyone's annoyance, their ship burns down. Doh! Further inconvenience arrives from Britain in the form of orders, instructing Laurence and his crew to make their way to Turkey to provide escort to two valuable dragon eggs, purchased by His Majesty's government from the Grand Vizier. In terms of plot, so far, so good - except Novik must now cope with the vast distances that their journey encompasses. The crew must fly overland to Constantinople, a journey of nearly 13,000 miles, and on a dragon that needs fuel and rest rather often. Additionally, the route takes them over some very dull and desolate landscape and clearly such a journey cannot be covered in the span of a mere page or two. To her credit, Novik applies herself valiantly to the task, but for the most part, the journey's pretty darn dull and takes up a fair old chunk of the book. During this time, very little seems to happen except for their encounter with a group of chattering feral dragons who make a convenient reappearance later on.
This interminable journey over, the party finally arrives at their destination, only to further stall, caught up in the games of politics. The Grand Vizier is unavailable, is too busy, is dealing with other matters &etc, and Laurence straight jacketed by his diplomatic obligations can only sit and stew until the boss is ready to see him. Once again, Novik valiantly attempt to lift the boredom by throwing in a little intrigue and mischief, but to my mind this comes over as an attempt to hide a stain on the carpet by concealing it with a rug. Further, one has the impression that this Ottoman obfuscation exists as our main story arc, but it is concluded with a third of the novel still remaining. Novik then has Laurence and Temeraire caught up with Prussian forces in their struggles against Napoleon - but though this is a clever and no doubt well researched tying together of fact and fiction, in terms of plot, it's deathly dull and rather than moving the story on, its effect is to place it under siege.
Black Powder War stands as the weakest of the three in the first Temeraire trilogy. It reads, in places, as little more than a travelogue and one gets the impression that Novik simply ran out of both steam and ideas as she worked to deliver the manuscript on time. Its pacing is uneven, its plotting is patchy and unresolved and following the singular charm of the first and (to a lesser extent) second instalments, Black Powder War is something of a disappointment - and that's a shame. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that it is no easy thing to top any overnight success - and as the glamour and gloss wears off, one can only hope that in future Temeraire works, Novik is more careful to watch for the pitfalls and traps that Black Powder War is caught up in.