Fans of dragons and historical alternate history alike must know about Naomi Novik’s popular Temeraire series, where dragons and men battle during the Napoleonic Wars. Lively, uniquely-drawn characters and intriguing takes on history are two aspects I adore about these books, plus the international scope Novik brings to her storytelling. Though the war is raging through Europe, other non-European nations get slowly drawn into the mix, and Novik presents each society and their human-dragon relations in a nuanced manner. In China, for example, dragons and men are treated as equals. In England, dragons are considered widely as nothing more than working beasts capable of speech. African dragons, on the other hand, are respected as the reptilian reincarnation of deceased tribal elders.
At the end of the last novel, Tongues of Serpents, the former captain Will Laurence and Temeraire trek across Australia after a stolen dragon egg only to discover that the aborigines are trading with China. The revelation was certainly significant for the bigger global picture Novik is constructing, but it wasn’t her most exciting book to read. Too much wandering the outback and too little action.
I looked forward to Crucible of Gold, however, in hopes there would be more excitement. And there definitely is.
When the book opens, Laurence and Temeraire seemed resigned to their fate Down Under, permanently cut off from the front lines. That is, until Hammond – the politically-enmeshed, mild-mannered British ambassador for the Middle Kingdom – comes flying in with an urgent mission that’d earn Laurence back his gold bars: a journey that will take them all the way to Latin America. The Tswana, who first appeared in Empire of Ivory, have declared a war for the liberation of their people and other African tribesmen who had been enslaved by the Portuguese, and Napoleon has funded their way to Portugal’s colony in Brazil in search for their kinsmen. Much to Laurence’s abolitionist misgivings, the pair has been ordered to protect the royal family in Rio and negotiate with the leaders of the Tswana to come to a peaceful resolution. In this situation, like many others throughout this series, the multi-layered theme of equality and freedom resurfaces: who gets to have them (for either man or dragon), and how much would you sacrifice for it?
Though this is another travel-heavy book, Crucible of Gold is a much more satisfying action-packed narrative. Will, Temeraire and company join once longtime friend, now distant colleague, Riley on his voyage to Brazil. Complications arise in the form of unruly, drunken crewmen and a sudden storm. After dealing with mishaps that involve being captured by the enemy and a marooning, Laurence and his rag-tag crew find themselves arriving at the Incan kingdom, an entire society that purposely cut themselves off from Western contact after killing the first Spanish conquistadors 200 years before. The most interesting aspect of this book is Novik’s alternate history handling of Incan society and how it could have evolved if it remained unconquered by Europeans. Moreover, adding Incan dragons to the mix adds a whole other layer of complexity about what it means to be free.
Crucible of Gold also adds new dimensions to staple cast members. The British dragons make a return, much to my delight. Fighting and political scheming go hand-in-hand to make for compelling reading. Iskierka gets her moment to shine especially (not that she doesn’t always demand attention) in a gladiator’s ring at one point in the novel, and there is a tinge of dragon romance going on, though it never becomes a focus. Several bombs are dropped concerning a couple of the stable cast members, though, and Napoleon gets a cameo in an unexpected way.
At the close of the novel, now that Laurence and Temeraire are reinstated in the service of the crown, a dramatic turn of events indicate that the next book will only increase the war’s stakes. In her series, Novik has transformed the Napoleonic War into a truely global conflict, and I eagerly await the next installment.