The Temeraire Reread

The Temeraire Reread: Victory of Eagles

Hello, everyone! Welcome back to the Temeraire Reread, in which I recap and review Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, one novel a week, leading up to the release of the final volume, League of Dragons, on June 14, 2016. We continue this week with the fifth novel, Victory of Eagles, in which Napoleon invades England. You can catch up on past posts at the reread index, or check out Tor.com’s other posts about Naomi Novik’s works through her tag.

Reminder: these posts may contain spoilers through all currently-published novels, but will contain no spoilers for the forthcoming League of Dragons (I’ve read it, but I’m pretending I haven’t). If you have read League, absolutely no spoilers! But there’s no need to warn for spoilers about the published books, so spoil—and comment!—away.

Also, before we go into spoilers: if you wear nail polish, or you know someone who does, check out these very cool colors from NerdLacquer: Celestial, Regal Copper, and Longwing.

 

PART I (Chapters 1-6)

Chapter 1

It is fall 1807 and Temeraire is in the breeding grounds in Wales, along with a few hundred feral or retired dragons. He is uneasy at being asked to mate “indiscriminately” and miserable with anxiety over Laurence’s safety.

Temeraire avoids the company of other dragons at first, but he makes the acquaintance of Perscitia based on a shared love of mathematics. She introduces him to Moncey, a Winchester who will leave the grounds and blend in with other couriers to get information. Temeraire asks him to find out if Laurence is still alive.

Shifting to Laurence’s POV, we find that he is imprisoned on HMS Goliath, which is on blockade and under attack as “an enormous flotilla” of French troop transports heads across the Channel. Laurence contributes to the Goliath getting free from the cables that dragons had used to keep it from fighting; the ship turns to go after the transports, even though that means passing between two heavily-armed French ships.

Outside, the first transports were already hurtling themselves onward to the shore, light-weight dragons wheeling above to shield them while they ran artillery onto the ground, and one soldier rammed the standard into the dirt, the golden eagle atop catching fire with the sunlight: Napoleon had landed in England at last.

Chapter 2

While Temeraire waits for news, Requiescat, a Regal Copper, demands Temeraire’s cave, which he has put some effort into improving. Temeraire refuses and Requiescat takes the matter to the council that governs disputes in the breeding grounds. During the meeting, Moncey returns with news: the Goliath was sunk with all hands this morning. Temeraire instinctively lets loose the divine wind in response, cracking open a solid stone wall.

Chapter 3

Laurence did, of course, get off the Goliath before she sank. In Dover, he is imprisoned in the attic of a sponging-house and reflects on his postponed sentence of death and other consequences of his treason. In the early morning,

The knob rattled in the door, and the door opened. Laurence turned and stopped, staring, at the man on the other side: the familiar but unexpected lean face, travel-leathered, and the Oriental features. “I hope I find you in good health,” Tharkay said. “Will you come with me? I believe there is still a danger of fire.”

Tharkay returned to England three weeks ago with another dozen feral dragons with him. Admiral Jane Roland commissioned him as a captain and sent him to find Laurence: Napoleon has landed fifty thousand men, who are still on the coast, and two hundred dragons, who are heading deep inland. Laurence finds comfort in Tharkay’s unchanged behavior, but painful temptation in Tharkay’s offer to say that he had not found Laurence. He declines, though he can articulate no reason why.

At a meeting of the military commanders, Laurence discovers that Jane had not been in command at the disaster at Dover. Helped by support from a General Wellesley, she is given the command again. The generals also agree to have Temeraire brought back by Laurence (Wellesley: “He’s a sentimentalist, isn’t he—surrendered himself? Damned romantic. What difference does it make? Hang him after.”).

Jane makes it clear to Laurence that their relationship must be on a strictly professional basis. At dinner, Laurence’s presence sparks a brawl; Granby pulls him out, and tells him of his despair over Iskierka’s refusal to listen to orders. In further catching-up, Demane and Sipho are still working for the Corps, and Maximus has not forgotten his and Lily’s promise (in His Majesty’s Dragon, chapter 11) not to let their captains be hanged—which, as Berkley says, is doubtless why Laurence was not imprisoned on land.

Elsie, captained by Hollin, Laurence’s former ground-crew master, takes Laurence to Wales: but when they land at sunset, the breeding grounds are completely empty.

Chapter 4

The morning after Temeraire heard of Laurence’s death, Perscitia and Moncey coax him into eating and activity, and Temeraire decides to fight. He convinces the other dragons that they can use tactics of their own creation to defend their territory and take prizes. They leave immediately for London, where they expect to find Napoleon’s army within the week.

Chapter 5

Laurence and Hollin go to the nearest settlement and learn that all the dragons left that morning. They follow the dragons’ trail over the next couple of days, but then it vanishes …

… because Temeraire had them all fly at night to avoid French dragons. Things are going well except for supply, so Temeraire decides they will take the livestock that the French army has been raiding from farms. This is both sensible strategy and an outlet for his almost-involuntary rage, which he is having difficulty suppressing—but does, knowing his responsibility to the others.

The next day, they find a French camp, which they successfully attack and take possession of. Prompted by Gentius, a retired Longwing, Perscitia (who does not like to fight) successfully turns the local militia into a proper gun-crew.

Chapter 6

Laurence and Hollin head back toward the Army, and are alarmed to hear in Twickenham (a bit west of London) that two French regiments have been dropped nearby by dragons to take livestock. They are found by another courier, who is carrying a colonel’s commission for “[s]ome bright militia-officer [who] has raised the countryside and beat them properly over at Wembley, and at Harlesden last night,” capturing one of the regimental standards known as an eagle.

They go with the courier and are attacked by a French heavy-weight; the other dragon is injured and Elsie is nearly caught, until an unharnessed Regal Copper defeats the French dragon. The Regal brings them to Temeraire’s camp, to Laurence’s surprise and joy.

Temeraire sees Laurence and initially thinks he is a ghost, but is shortly convinced of Laurence’s solidity. “Temeraire gave a low joyful cry and curled around him tightly and said, ‘Oh, Laurence; I shall never let anyone take you from me again.'”

Commentary

I know that this book gets grim later, but I love how it starts so much. Not only being in media res—pacing is not a problem in this book!—but how much the situation pushes Temeraire out of his comfort zone and forces him to take responsibility and act independently. And when you combine that with all the fun, clever worldbuilding of the dragons creating their military force, well, I really enjoyed that, even though I have to give the details short shrift because these posts need some kind of length control.

I also love Temeraire’s POV, though to me—and this may just be my immersion in the series overall, because at any given time I’m writing about one book but reading ahead to take notes about a later one—it doesn’t read that differently from Laurence’s. I’m talking about sentence structure, vocabulary, and other things on that level: there are sections where no-one’s named at the start and I had to go several paragraphs before I was sure who’s POV I’m in. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation, that the series’ relatively distant and formal third-person narration is continued in Temeraire’s POV. Temeraire’s narration is funnier, and it’s good to get away from Laurence’s head once we get into what I think of as the Mordor section of this book (more on that later), but to me it’s less a revelation of character than useful logistically, because Temeraire’s personality was already pretty well WYSIWYG.

Let’s talk about some secondary characters. Tharkay! Remember the scene when he comes to free Laurence, because Laurence will, rather unexpectedly, in the penultimate book. I admit that sometimes he’s a little close to being the narrative’s mouthpiece, between his blunt speech and his outsider perspective on morality and duty, which is closer to modern audiences than Laurence’s. [*] But he’s so himself that I’ll allow it. (Also, he has a new hawk, to replace the one killed in the avalanche in Black Powder War.)

[*] It is genuinely hard for me to empathize with Laurence regarding his death sentence in this section. This is partly because he doesn’t really understand why he’s willing to be executed, and partly because I don’t do religious guilt or believe in the death penalty. I can intellectually comprehend that the cumulative weight of all Laurence’s social conditioning leads him to this belief, but it’s another past-is-foreign-country moment.

I love Perscitia immensely: she’s a great example of how there are many ways for characters—most particularly female characters—to be competent and effective and interesting, even in a military context. I didn’t particularly think we needed the letter excerpted at the back of Black Powder War doubting the intelligence of dragons, but if it gets us Perscitia hearing Temeraire humiliate the letter’s author with the Pythagorean theorem, I’ll take it.

I also love Jane “appall[ing] her audience of generals and ministers into silence” by saying, effectively, “yeah, I have sex, so?” Also being so good at her job that even the person who’d been in command admits that she should’ve been (Sanderson, who had previously been passed over for command at Dover during the dragon plague).

Speaking of generals, I confess I didn’t realize that Wellesley = Wellington until the end of the book, when he’s created a Duke and referred to by his new name. (There is one place where he’s mistakenly referred to as Wellington before then, in Chapter 9, but I didn’t register it.) What an excellently, vividly abrasive portrait he’s given here: a hard-headed practicality that makes him unsympathetic to Laurence but allows him to recognize Jane’s competence and work well with her. More on that at the end.

While on military stuff: in Chapter 7, Wellesley says that Nelson was sent to Copenhagen with twenty ships two weeks ago, which is when Napoleon saw his chance to invade. I think this is probably a revised Second Battle of Copenhagen? I say revised because (1) in our history, the British set sail in July 1807, and in the books, they didn’t return from Africa until August 1807 (the invasion probably takes place in early November); and (2) Wellesley was at our history’s version of that battle.

Let’s wrap up this section up by highlighting the discussion Laurence and Granby have in Chapter 3 about how Iskierka won’t listen to anyone. Granby says he never wanted to be a bad officer, the kind that’s “kept on because his beast won’t serve otherwise” and that gives the Corps a bad reputation.

“But if we have more liberty than we ought,” Laurence said, after a moment, struggling through, “it is because they have not enough: the dragons. They have no stake in victory but our happiness; their daily bread any nation would give them just to have peace and quiet. We are given license so long as we do what we ought not: so long as we use their affections to keep them obedient and quiet, to ends which serve them not at all—or which harm.”

“How else do you make them care?” Granby said. “If we left off, the French would only run right over us, and take our eggs themselves.”

“They care in China,” Laurence said, “and in Africa, and care all the more, that their rational sense is not imposed on, and their hearts put into opposition with their minds. If they cannot be woken to a natural affection for their country, such as we feel, it is our fault and not theirs.”

I went right by this passage the first time I read it, but it’s a really nice little thematic encapsulation of this theme of the series, and with a slightly new angle on it, not just “treat dragons as sentient beings” but “bring them into full civic participation.” Which we will see a contrasting example of in the next chapter, when Temeraire is at the military conference, so let’s move on.

 

Part II (Chapters 7-12)

Chapter 7

Laurence tries to convince Temeraire to return to the Army, not understanding at first that Temeraire is the commander of the force. Temeraire steamrolls past his confusion, telling the courier that he will accept the colonel’s commission and that “Napoleon will be attacking London in two days.” But the next day, a scout tells them it will be even sooner, that night. Temeraire’s force breaks camp very rapidly and joins the Army at Plumstead (on the east of London, south of the Thames).

Wellesley offers Laurence a pardon if he can make Temeraire obey. Laurence tells him that he cannot, that Wellesley must speak with Temeraire himself and advise him of the battle plan. Wellesley agrees.

At the subsequent conference, most of the generals are confident: they have picked their ground and can match the thirty thousand men they believe Napoleon has brought to London. Wellesley and Jane think they should retreat, because they don’t believe it’s only thirty thousand and they want time to integrate the new dragons. But they are overruled, and Temeraire’s force is directed to stop the Fleur-de-Nuits from bombarding the British forces overnight—after a tense moment when one general gives Temeraire nonsensical specific orders and threatens to hang Laurence if he will not obey, and Temeraire threatens to join Napoleon if they do. Laurence despairs, fearing for Temeraire’s very safety from the British military, but the dragons are left to work out tactics against the Fleur-de-Nuits on their own.

Chapter 8

Under Jane’s guidance, Temeraire and Perscitia successfully direct the creation of a decoy camp for the Fleur-de-Nuits to bomb.

In the morning, the aerial battle shows that the British have learned the lessons of Jena: Perscitia puts dummies on the unharnessed dragons to tempt French boarding parties, and the harnessed British heavy-weights are able to drop their bombs. Laurence directs Temeraire at a weakness on one of the French flanks, where his force is able to stop the advance.

The aerial battle then “settle[s] into the steadier, grinding work of attrition.” While Temeraire is resting, Jane tells them that Napoleon and Lien are both there. Temeraire asks where Marshal Davout is; Jane tells him that he was last reported in Portugal, but Temeraire says that “we saw him north of London, two days ago.” Jane immediately recognizes the trap and sounds the alarm; Laurence and Temeraire go high aloft and see that “Davout was coming, directly for their rear, with thirty dragons and twenty thousand men.”

Chapter 9

The scant advance warning allowed the British to at least attempt to escape the trap. “Wellesley fought a brilliant rear-guard action, bloody and terrible,” but ten thousand men were taken prisoner by the French and the rest escaped with barely any supplies. The infantry and cavalry head for the central depot in Weedon Bec, while the dragons carry the cannon far ahead for safety. Jane divides up the dragons into companies that can be fed off the deer on large estates, and Laurence feels it his duty to go to his family’s home.

Laurence’s oldest brother George tells him that their father has been ill since August (a.k.a. Laurence’s treason) and denies him permission to come into the house. Lady Allendale, Laurence’s mother, comes outside to see the aviators (with Gong Su, the cook from China, who she hired and who will rejoin the crew), and meets Jane and Emily, who she incorrectly believes to Laurence’s daughter. Jane finds this very funny, but she also tells Laurence how hard it is to watch him martyr himself.

Temeraire’s force is dissatisfied at the defeat and the lack of prizes. He takes them to negotiate pay with Wellesley, at Laurence and Jane’s suggestion, as Jane had already wanted to send dragons back to cover the infantry when it leaves Weedon. (She thinks Lien, like Temeraire, has talked unharnessed dragons out of the breeding grounds.) Temeraire rejects Wellesley’s attempts to buy off only the two of them with money and a pardon, and Laurence negotiates with Wellesley for the dragons to be paid wages, to be given the right to go where they like and to accept paying work, and to be allowed to use a network of coverts that will be established for shelter and food. The dragons are very pleased, but Laurence finds “maneuvering for personal interest” highly distasteful.

Temeraire’s force covers the Army as it leaves, which is boring. Iskierka, Arkady, and some of the other Turkestan ferals wander off looking for treasure or excitement, which results in Iskierka’s capture.

Chapter 10

Laurence and Tharkay go into London to rescue Granby and Iskierka. They learn that Napoleon is in Kensington Palace, and Iskierka and Lien are in the park outside. Laurence suggests, based on his assessment of Napoleon as “unreasonably fond of seduction,” that Granby might be in Kensington Palace, which they decide to investigate for lack of anything better. It is night by the time they head that way, and they are forced to wait for the street to clear outside a grand party—outside the house rented by Bertram Woolvey, who (a) married Laurence’s childhood sweetheart Edith Galman and (b) comes home and sees Laurence lurking.

To avoid drawing attention, Laurence and Tharkay hustle Woolvey into the house. Laurence attempts to leave quickly for the family’s safety (they are still in London because the baby has measles), but is forced to explain and, eventually, to let Woolvey take them in his carriage to a house near the palace grounds, to help if Laurence is telling the truth and to hinder otherwise.

Laurence, Tharkay, and Woolvey sneak into the palace grounds and learn from some British workmen that Granby is upstairs. They disguise themselves with French uniforms taken from soldiers they disable or kill, go into the palace, and free Granby to call for Iskierka out the window; but Woolvey is shot and killed.

Chapter 11

Temeraire anxiously waits for Laurence, who finally appears on Iskierka’s back, pursued unsuccessfully by several French middle-weights. (It’s not mentioned, but Lien’s poor eyesight would have kept her from pursuing.)

When they return to the Army, Wellesley lectures Iskierka and Temeraire about discipline and then asks where the French troops are. Though he initially does not believe they have made it back to London so quickly, Perscitia explains how the French dragons are cutting march times by leapfrogging infantry ahead. Wellesley pep-talks the Coldstream Guards into setting an example by letting themselves also be carried by dragons, and ultimately Wellesley’s force makes it to Scotland in two weeks instead of a month.

They arrive at Loch Laggan to find a French dragon waiting for them with a flag of parley.

Chapter 12

Outside, the English-speaking French dragon attempts to seduce away the British dragons; inside, Laurence is reunited with Riley. In Chapter 8, we learned that Harcourt was recovering from the difficult birth of a ten-pound boy; an exhausted Riley tells Laurence that she and the rest of Lily’s formation left for the coast three days ago, leaving the baby with a wet-nurse (“Do you know, they must be fed every two hours”?).

Talleyrand and Murat are the French envoys, who successfully manage to sow dissension and tempt some of the British leaders into considering surrender, because they believe that if they wait, Napoleon will land even more troops. Then Jane Roland bangs in, fresh from battle, to report that the Corps and Navy have just defeated another French attempt to cross the Channel: “taken six, sunk four, burnt two, of ships-of-the-line; and not a thousand men landed of sixty.” Wellesley seizes the moment and is put in command; the French envoys are asked to leave.

Wellesley and Jane settle that Jane will bring up the rest of the Army via dragons on patrol, and that Wellesley will figure out how to get Napoleon to come out of London. Temeraire and the unharnessed dragons go on patrol, but supply is becoming scarce as farmers hide their herds. Wellesley summons Laurence, Iskierka, and “the best fighters you have, and the more vicious the better”; Laurence does not protest to Jane, feeling that he cannot burden her.

At Edinburgh Castle, while waiting for Wellesley, Laurence meets the King, who has slipped out in the rain in nightshirt and slippers, mistakes Laurence for Murat, and thinks everyone wants to kill him. Servants come and shepherd the King back inside.

Laurence stood in the courtyard behind the closing door, rain running down his sleeves and his face like blood; stood and said aloud, “O God, I wish I had not done it.”

Commentary

I am not entirely sure how I feel about the Woolvey family. Or rather, not about the people in it, but about their effect on Laurence and their position in the story.

As people, I think they get as much nuance as possible in the very short amount of space they’re present for. Edith continues to show a particular kind of bravery and honor, the kind that finds dishonor in holding other people back. Bertram is not favorably positioned in the narrative initially, but he, too, is granted complexity: beyond his bravery, Laurence is forced to admit that for someone who had “nothing to do but spend money,” he “had chosen … to establish himself respectably, with a wife no man could blush for” (and who, Laurence observes, seems content).

Then, of course, Woolvey insists on going to the Palace with them, not just bringing them to the grounds, and gets killed. Tharkay thinks he is trying to live up to Laurence’s reputation for bravery, which I suppose could make him an example of the dangers of unthinking pride / fragile masculinity / whatever. But to me it feels more like his role—and Edith’s role as his widow—is to be another straw on Laurence’s back (material for his hair shirt, grist for his angst mill, and so on and so forth). And one might well argue that you need a lot of straws to get Laurence to the end of this part, where he wishes he had not taken the cure to France, which is entirely reasonable. But … something about it still feels a little too much to me. Other people’s mileage undoubtedly varies.

While I’m talking about mild dissatisfactions, the French ambush is a notable example of plot that only happens because of a failure to communicate, that is, no-one properly debriefs Temeraire and he doesn’t think to tell anyone that he saw Davout off-screen. I know they were all in a terrible hurry, but I would expect Jane or Laurence, at least, to remember that kind of thing.

Speaking of human-dragon interactions: Laurence is, by the way, wrong to feel like he’s “maneuvering for personal interest” when he negotiates dragon pay and rights with Wellesley in chapter 9. He’s said so himself: it’s critically important for military effectiveness to treat dragons fairly and well, plus it’s the right thing to do. He just has an upper-class person’s distaste for the details of having to earn a living, and wishes that everyone might live on virtue and patriotism, like photosynthesis. … sorry, that was too mean. He’s depressed about his treason, which is unfairly coloring his reaction to what, in other times, he would recognize as a victory.

I greatly enjoyed the meeting of Laurence’s mother and Jane Roland, by the way (Lady Allendale’s reaction of “fascination” to the existence of female aviators, rather than shock, speaks volumes about her) and am sorry we don’t get to see the dinner-party Lady Allendale throws Jane in the next book.

Some smaller notes:

  • The long arc of Temeraire and Iskierka’s egg starts in chapter 7, when Iskierka announces to Temeraire that “I have decided that you may give me an egg.” (He doesn’t want to.)
  • Poor Celeritas has been exiled to breeding grounds in Ireland because of Laurence and Temeraire’s treason.
  • Temeraire brings in sixty unharnessed dragons, which Laurence thinks “would make Temeraire’s army very nearly the equal to the Corps in strength, at least those forces presently in England and under harness.” (Chapter 7.) This puts in perspective the broken promise to send Prussia twenty dragons in Black Powder War. (Note that the series is not always consistent its logistics, see prior comments about dragon populations and also, just how many ships-of-the-line were there at the final battle in this book? But take this as order-of-magnitude.)
  • In Chapter 12, Tharkay leads them to “an estate with several handsome dairy farms,” just over the border into Scotland, which Laurence infers is the estate involved in Tharkay’s mysterious law-suit, but Tharkay continues to not offer details.

 

PART III (Chapters 13-16)

Chapter 13

While Temeraire waits for Laurence to come back from meeting with Wellesley, he worries that Laurence is angry with him for being dismissed the service and losing his fortune (because of the law-suit brought by the slavers last book), both of which he has just found out about.

Laurence comes back, hands written orders to each captain, and directs them orally to stop Napoleon’s irregulars from taking supplies from British farms: no prisoners to be taken, no quarter to be given.

In flashback to Laurence’s POV, Wellesley directs him to use these tactics to help force Napoleon out of London. Laurence recognizes the soundness of the strategy but recoils at using dragons this way. Nevertheless, he agrees:

There was little enough Laurence could now do, to repair what he had done; he could not restore the lives of the slain, or raise up ships from the Channel floor that had been sunk, or make recompense to all the ordinary countrymen whose livelihood and possessions had been raided away by an invading army. He could not repair his father’s health, or the King’s, or Edith’s happiness. But he had already stained himself irrevocably with dishonor, for the sake of an enemy nation and a tyrant’s greed; he could stain himself a little more for the sake of his own, and shield with his own ruined reputation those who yet had one to protect.

Thus, the written orders for the other officers, directing them to obey him; his only request, which Wellesley grants.

The next morning, the dragons come to a village that was just raided by the French. Laurence has Iskierka burn a house to force the villagers to come out of hiding quickly and tell them where the French went. They find the French without difficulty and attack.

Chapter 14

They are effective at the goal set by Wellesley: the French raiding parties become more desperate for supplies and to catch Laurence’s force, which makes them harsher with civilians, which makes the civilians resist the raiding parties even more and provide even more intelligence. Laurence is devastated to find that his family home has escaped burning on Napoleon’s orders, and Temeraire and the aviators are increasingly anxious and unhappy. (Laurence does at least take a French dragon prisoner, however.)

In the first week of March, 1808, they have been destroying French raiding parties for nearly two months when Wellesley sends out Arkady and three other ferals, along with Tharkay. But Tharkay declines to captain Arkady at this task:

“I have not the luxury of setting aside, for a time, the veneer of civilization; I must be a little more careful. A temporary viciousness may be pardonable in a gentleman, even admirable; but it must brand me forever a savage. Laurence, what are you doing?”

The question was simple enough, and ought to have afforded any of a dozen answers; one after another presented themselves for his consideration. “Killing soldiers,” Laurence said, at last, “most of whom are starving; and making them vicious, so they give us still-better excuse.”

It had the poor advantage of being true; giving it voice, Laurence tasted all its ugliness on his tongue. He sat down and put a hand over his mouth, and found his face was wet.

Laurence struggles with the idea that he would be governed not by orders but only his own conscience, which seems to him “the most miserably solitary existence imaginable; isolated by more than distance or even disdain.” But he accepts that he must, and leaves Wellesley’s orders on the table.

Chapter 15

Laurence apologizes to Temeraire for “hav[ing] submitted to despair” and says that if Wellesley orders him to come back and be hanged, he will not go. Laurence writes to Wellesley to tell him of the change of tactics; the response is Wellesley himself, along with the rest of the Army, moving southward to offer Napoleon battle.

Wellesley lays out a “brief and unsettling” battle plan: they will put their backs to the sea where the Thames meets the Channel; “hold fast, while they spend the best part of their strength, and divert their attacks from our center, until the signal is given”; and then yield the center, withdraw along the flanks, and attack the French rear. Their goal, he tells them, is the capture of Napoleon and the end of the war.

The morning of the battle is thickly foggy and stays that way for the first six hours of fighting. The British position becomes very difficult as the French send in their reserves of ground forces and dragons, but Wellesley has not yet ordered them to yield the center. Then the signal is finally given:

Temeraire pulled away, with a last anxious look over his shoulder; but as he did, he was startled to see the last of the Coldstream Guards throwing themselves flat upon the ground instead of marching away farther, and then a roar of thunder erupted from the fogbank, smoke and orange flame.

He broke over the top of the cloud-bank and saw them in that moment: sixteen ships-of-the-line, and the enormous gold-blazoned Victory at their head, with Nelson’s admiral’s flag flying from the mast. All of them together were unleashing their full broadsides directly into the front rank of the French dragons and men, clouds of black smoke enveloping them even as the fog at last spilled off their sails and prows.

The fleet has returned from Copenhagen, with multiple prizes to boot; between its bombardment and Wellesley sending in the British reserves, Napoleon himself is in danger of being captured.

Lien, seeing this, heads out over the ocean and uses the divine wind to raise a series of waves that she then combines into a single wave of monstrous size. Temeraire, who has followed her, manages to break a hole in the wave, but it is not enough: of the fleet, every ship is sunk except one ship-of-the-line and two frigates. In the silence after the devastation, French dragons manage to rescue Napoleon, who escapes with Lien.

The last of the French dragons broke away and fled. The men yet on the field threw down their guns, and sank most of them to their knees or to all fours, broken with exhaustion. Nineteen eagle standards lay trampled and mired in the blood-churned mud, amid twenty thousand corpses.

The day was won.

Chapter 16

In the aftermath of the battle, they bury their dead and return to (or start making) their dragon pavilions. Napoleon has successfully escaped, and the Prince of Wales is made regent for the King.

Two weeks after the battle, Wellesley—now the Duke of Wellington—offers Laurence a commutation of his delayed death sentence, to transportation and labor, as long as Temeraire goes with him: not only is there a general fear of Celestials after the battle, but Wellington declines to allow Temeraire to engage in “Whiggish rabblerousing” among British dragons. Laurence, reluctantly, tells Temeraire they must go: he will not be a martyr, but he hopes to make up for some of the suffering he has caused by his actions.

They prepare for the trip to Australia. Jane is sending three dragon eggs for the colony. She is also sending Emily to give her professional distance from Jane, who has just been named Admiral of the Air and created a peer (at Wellesley’s insistence). Laurence manages to dissuade Harcourt from sending the baby with Riley, since the Allegiance will be acting as a prison-ship.

When they board the Allegiance, they see Nelson’s coffin being carried away. They are joined before they sail by Tharkay, somewhat mysteriously, and after they sail by Iskierka carrying Granby, not at all mysteriously: she still wants an egg from Temeraire.

The book ends with Laurence reading the Principia Mathematica to Temeraire:

The same book under his hands, the salt wind in his face, Temeraire at his side; nothing changed outwardly, and yet in his essentials he felt as wholly altered as if he had been reborn, since the last time he had set foot upon the deck of a ship: a tide coming in, high and fast, which had swept clean the sand.

“Laurence?” Temeraire said. “Would you prefer another?”

“No, my dear,” Laurence said. “I do very well.”

Commentary

So I referred earlier to the Mordor section of this book, and Chapter 14 is it: a section that looms large in my mind for its doom and gloom and endless slogging misery, yet is actually not that much of the book page-wise. (Okay, technically it starts in Chapter 13—Laurence, you really did not have to destroy the house of your fellow citizens—but just the very end.) I think it’s because there’s so much more lead-up than I’d remembered: Laurence being outcast, and worrying that someone will kill Temeraire for being unmanageable, and then Woolvey and his father and the King … I really do enjoy this book, but this moral low point for Laurence is pretty tough. As it should be! (When we keep revisiting this angst, on the other hand—well, we’ll get there.)

I positively adore the conversation with Tharkay that snaps Laurence out of it. But I was very relieved when, next book, he revealed that he had a reason for going to Australia other than Laurence: when that was in question, I worried that his actions might be revolving too much around Laurence, what with constantly swooping in to provide him with twenty dragons or an escape or moral clarity or company, and not doing anything motivated by his own needs. Yes, I ship them, but no, that wouldn’t be a healthy relationship of any kind; nor would it be a sensitive depiction of the most prominent non-white human character in the series.

Moving to other characters and their complexities, Wellington may be ruthless, but he is fair, and I love that he insists on Jane being recognized as much as he was. [*] Their relationship of straightforward competence and mutual respect is so great. (I never watched much of The West Wing, but I’m familiar with its rapid-fire walk-and-talk conversations, and that’s completely what the two of them remind me of in Chapter 12, just after Wellesley is given command in Scotland.) I note as well that Wellington scoffs, “Rights be damned; we will never hear an end of anyone crying for their rights” (Chapter 16), and had a complicated relationship with rights in our history as a politician: though he supported Catholic emancipation, he opposed Jewish emancipation and the bill that eventually expanded the franchise and reformed the House of Commons.

[*] Gentius’ first Captain, he says in Chapter 13, won the right to be recognized as such in battle. So this means that in Gentius’s lifetime, women aviators have gone from being “Miss” to Admiral of the Air. We’re not sure how old Gentius is, but somewhere around two hundred seems a reasonable guess (in Chapter 9, Temeraire and Laurence discuss that Temeraire may live to about 200).

In the bigger picture, in the spring of 1808 in our world, Murat invaded Spain; I’m not sure whether the timing stayed the same in the series, but overall it probably doesn’t matter much, as we only get the edges and effects of the Peninsular Campaign. The formal Regency is advanced from 1811 in our world; since we’re about to head out of England and stay gone until at least 1812 (Blood of Tyrants), that also probably doesn’t matter much for our purposes.

Finally, the Battle of Shoeburyness. (Is it very American of me to think that’s a great name?) I still remember the first time reading this book and how electrifying it was when the fleet appeared, and then how horrifying it was when Lien destroyed the fleet so quickly. Great stuff.

I asked the resident physicist about the enormous wave Lien generated. Unfortunately fluid mechanics are very much not his area, so while he was instinctively dubious about certain aspects of it, he did refer me to the phenomenon of rogue waves, which are poorly-understood and thus probably provide sufficient plausibility for anyone not a specialist in fluid mechanics. (If you are: please chime in, we would love to hear from you!)

Next week, Australia, which is currently the front-runner for my least favorite book of the series, alas. Let’s get through it together, shall we? See you then.

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, running Con or Bust, and (in theory) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.

14 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!