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 14th. We continue this week with the seventh novel, Crucible of Gold, in which we head for Brazil. 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.
MAP, PROLOGUE, AND PART I (Chapters 1-6)
I realize that you have to put maps somewhere and the front of the book is traditional, but this map is really a giant spoiler for the book, considering that it shows the Allegiance‘s course just … stopping, mid-Pacific, and then the Triomphe, which may reasonably be presumed French based on its name, entering the picture. (Commenter Booksnhorses reports that the British edition of the last book didn’t have a map! As of the time I’m queuing this post for publication, I haven’t heard whether the British edition of this book or the next did.)
Arthur Hammond comes from Peking to Temeraire’s pavilion in Australia, by suffering through three straight weeks in the air on Shen Li, the long-winged courier-dragon from the last book. On arrival, he is nearly eaten by a bunyip, which is scared off by Temeraire and by Laurence in “ragged backwoods hunter” mode.
Hammond brings the news that Laurence has been reinstated to the Corps. Laurence refuses to accept because he assumes that he will be asked to suppress MacArthur’s rebellion in Sydney, but Hammond assures him that MacArthur’s actions will be excused because he sensibly avoided war with China, as long as he repents of rebelling.
Rather, Hammond is there because Wellington is about to land in Portugal and commence a long ground campaign through French-occupied Portugal and Spain, aiming at France itself, while Russia and Prussia strike from the east. But Brazil is under attack by the Tswana, who are seeking the return of their enslaved kin; and if the Prince Regent is forced to leave Brazil and return to Portugal, the British doubt whether the Portuguese royal family will still allow the British to land troops. Therefore, peace in Brazil is of the utmost importance, and
it seemed Wellington had expressed the opinion that if anyone might be hoped to have success at talking sense into a band of uncontrollable dragons, it should be the two of them; as long as someone was sent along to be sure they did not in the process give away three-quarters of the colony.
(We learn next chapter that reinforcements are also being sent to meet them.)
Temeraire is eager to have Laurence reinstated, though he does feel a bit wistful at leaving their valley. Laurence decides to go: though he fears that they will do more evil than good back in the world, he knows he cannot “allow those fears to imprison them more securely even than the miles of ocean,” particularly because, “[i]f nothing else, Temeraire was not made to lie idle, in a peaceful valley at the far ends of the earth.”
The Allegiance turned around at Madras on Hammond’s summons, so Riley, Iskierka, and Granby are back. Laurence does his best to fill a crew for Temeraire on slim pickings, made slimmer by his refusal to take anyone who tried to interfere with Kulingile and Demane (who will come with them, rather than remaining subject to Rankin). He does take Lieutenant Forthing, of the shabby coat from last book; two former convicts, O’Dea the florid gloom-and-doom type and Shipley, a tailor; and as a personal follower, Ferris, their former lieutenant of the smothering, Corps-proud mother, who was dismissed the service after Laurence and Temeraire’s treason, and who followed them to Australia out of desperation.
At a farewell dinner given by MacArthur—now Governor—and more specifically Mrs. MacArthur, Laurence meets Mrs. Pemberton, who came to Australia for adventure with her husband but was widowed on the voyage, and now is at loose ends. He will engage her as a chaperone for Emily Roland between this chapter and the next, after Roland knocks down a soldier who grabbed her. Neither Roland nor Demane are happy about this: Roland because she didn’t want fuss and sees no need for a chaperone, and Demane because neither Roland nor Laurence approve of his attempt to defend Roland when she didn’t want defending.
They leave Australia. Laurence and Riley are scrupulously courteous to each other and do not discuss Laurence’s mission at all, for fear of resuming their previous conflict over slavery. Laurence contemplates “the offer which [he] privately wished to make [to the Tswana]: a general liberation throughout the country, in lieu of having all their particular kindred returned.”
They manage to survive a five-day storm. But the officers, able seamen, and aviators are stupefied with exhaustion when the storm ends, and the less-responsible sailors take advantage of the lack of supervision to break into the ship’s spirit-room, get roaring drunk, and accidentally start a fire. The sober sailors fight the fire valiantly, and the aviators help by having the dragons pick up the drunks and dunk them, to get them out of the way and under control. But the fire causes two enormous explosions and the Allegiance begins to sink.
Temeraire picks Laurence and Demane out of the water and returns to the sinking ship to attempt to pick up supplies. They rescue some drunken sailors, but Fellowes, Temeraire’s ground-crew master since the first book, and Riley are among the lost. (Granby’s arm is also seriously injured.) Two ship’s boats survived and set off to try to make landfall, crammed with sailors, while the dragons fly on with sailors in their belly-netting.
The dragons fly for three days with only an hour’s rest on a tiny reef, and are at the extreme end of their endurance when they spot a ship, which sends up a flare in response to their signals. The dragons manage to land, and just as Temeraire falls asleep, he hears Laurence say, “We surrender.”
Temeraire wakes to discover that they are on a French dragon-transport, the Triomphe, along with a Fleur-de-Nuit named Genevieve, companion to Ambassador De Guignes and a language prodigy bred on the advice of Lien; two other French dragons; and a dragon named Maila Yupanqui, an Incan ambassador. De Guignes is, as always, perfectly courteous and kind, but also extremely displeased at having encountered them and does his best to isolate them. However, Mrs. Pemberton tells them that the ship’s company includes, puzzlingly, several French noblewomen.
The British dragons are grumpy at being prisoners when they feel they would easily defeat the others in a fair fight. Hammond starts teaching Temeraire Quecha and lets Maila eavesdrop on these lessons so that Maila can learn English, which makes Temeraire more grumpy because it makes it easier for Maila to flirt with Iskierka.
The chapter ends with the ship’s arrival at a small island where the British will be left.
The French leave supplies and the promise to return on the way back to France, but no dragon harness or gear. Keeping everyone to a set ration is an endless and difficult chore, particularly since the best candidate for a leader from the sailors is still recovering from the fire, there are very few aviators, and Laurence dares not have Roland around the sailors (Mrs. Pemberton remained on the ship as De Guignes’s guest, at Laurence’s plea). Despite their efforts, some of the food is stolen, and one of the sailors attempts to threaten Laurence into giving out more food and rum—the French didn’t leave any alcohol, but the sailors don’t believe that.
The sailors have made a still in secret, and break it out while the dragons have flown away to fish. The small amount of liquor gives them bravery, and some, mostly acting out of desperate fear, attempt to take the captains hostage. The sailors manage to grab Demane; Kulingile returns and kills about thirty of them in rescuing Demane.
Roland was knocked unconscious in the fight, but wakes to tell Laurence that she and Demane had found a shipwreck on the far side of the island. There they find quality rope and maps that show scattered atolls leading to the Incan empire.
This section feels the most Patrick O’Brian of the series to date to me, though for the sake of my schedule I will not go through summaries of all 20-and-a-bit Aubrey-Maturin books to pick out which particular ones. The tension and horror of the shipwreck and the mutiny are, I think, depicted effectively and don’t take up too much of the book. However, I can certainly understand how one might prefer that the book had them discover the French embassy to the Incan empire some other way and then skipped over the journey. (I note this book has more chapters than any book before it, though the page counts listed online suggest that it’s not the longest; unfortunately I don’t have paper copies on hand to see how comparable those pages are.)
I’m not sure whether Laurence is right that the aviators bear some responsibility for the mutiny on the island. There’s something to be said for his statement that they should have tried harder to keep the sailors busy, because “we might have known that men at once excessive idle and half-mad with fear could be relied on for the worst sort of starts.” But he also thinks guiltily that he did not want to bother with the sailors, because they were responsible for the explosion but were the ones to survive, and as someone who has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility (it’s going to get me in trouble someday), I recognize the symptoms in others.
Let’s skip back to the beginning. Temeraire’s unfinished pavilion is “something neighbor to the Parthenon in size” (per the Prologue), so it’s pretty darn big. (I am planning a kitchen renovation and Temeraire’s insistence on not cutting up the enormous central stone slab of the floor, because it would destroy the marbling, made me laugh; I can just imagine our contractors’ faces at the idea.) Shen Li, the courier-dragon, disapproves of it on grounds that seem likely to be Buddhist in origin: “such attachments” to material things “inevitably must lead to suffering.” Which, as Laurence notes, is a remarkable thing for a dragon to think, and I love this little glimpse of variety in dragon thought.
I have no urge toward agriculture, but the idyllic nature of the valley to Laurence and Temeraire comes across so strongly that I would absolutely like to vacation there. I particularly appreciated the shift from Tongues, in which the British hear a “strange moaning song,” to this book, in which Laurence faintly hears a song and recognizes it as “the Wiradjuri in their summer camp along the river.” (Laurence meets regularly with them for trade, and he intended to “present for their approval Temeraire’s next intended step in the pavilion’s construction, the acquisition of timber from a stand of large old trees to the north.”)
The geopolitical situation: in Chapter 3, Granby notes that Napoleon hasn’t outlawed slavery and wonders at the Tswana being willing to ally with him. Hammond says that the Tswana “have given him a truce, in exchange for reparations: but as his reparations involve shipping them across the sea to attack their enemies, which are also his, there is very little to choose between” calling it a truce and an alliance. He also reports that the Tswana “have not ceased their attacks upon the Spanish coast and the Portuguese.” Obviously we’ll come back to the first part of Hammond’s comments when we reach Rio, but I’m not sure if we hear anything more about the second part.
The French noblewomen on board the Triomphe include Mme. Récamier; as Hammond says in chapter 11, “I thought she loathed Bonaparte, but I suppose she loves an opportunity of intrigue on such a scale enough to compensate.” Indeed, in our history she was exiled by Napoleon in 1805, so this feels a little incongruous, but for such a tiny cameo I suppose it hardly matters.
On another alternate-history note, children’s stories about King Arthur and his knights involve them killing non-mythical dragons, which Temeraire finds unlikely with the weapons available at the time but still unpleasant.
The ongoing issues in Roland and Demane’s relationship are pretty fully established in this section. Demane has proposed multiple times, but Roland has turned him down because he will almost certainly be assigned to Gilbraltar, but she will be taking over Excidium when Jane retires, and she doesn’t want a long-distance relationship: “What’s the use of only having the right to be jealous?” (Also, she has no intention of risking pregnancy, so their relationship has not become intimate in that direction either.) This remains the status quo as of Demane going to Portugal with Lily’s formation at the end of Blood of Tyrants.
Finally, I keep meaning to say something about this and forgetting, and here’s as good a time as any: I call Emily Roland “Roland” in the posts about non-England books because there’s no chance of getting her confused with her mother and because that’s how Laurence thinks of her, and I call Jane Roland “Jane” for similar reasons. Normally I prefer to call all characters by an equivalent level of formality, and particularly disapprove of women being addressed by first names while men are addressed by last; so I thought a brief explanation was in order.
PART II (Chapters 7-13)
They arrive in Pusantinsuyo, the Incan empire, after two weeks of hop-scotching across several hundred miles of ocean. The first village they find is large and prosperous-looking but has been entirely emptied by plague. They eat from the untended livestock and well-stocked storehouses, and the dragons head out and split up to look for another town, so they can ask for permission to travel the country.
Temeraire finds a small dragon named Palta, who is somewhat awkwardly plowing the fields; Palta agrees to come to the shore with Temeraire, on the condition that he first send home the handful of humans with him. Iskierka finds an elderly man named Taruca, who she picks up without asking (he didn’t run away because he’s blind) or noting the location. Taruca asks them to take him back to his family, but they are nearly two weeks’ flying away. Palta directs them to Governor Hualpa in Talcahuano.
Governor Hualpa is the governor of dragons, it turns out; the governor of men will not receive Europeans because they have proven themselves untrustworthy (killing a ruler after receiving the ransom you demanded for his release will do that). And while Governor Hualpa receives the dragons, he considers their taking Taruca to be theft.
After a great deal of discussion, it develops that “theft” does not mean that the Inca practice slavery. Rather, humans and dragons belong to family-based communities called ayllu, which humans are sometimes unlawfully taken from. In Taruca’s case, a dragon stole him years ago, but since then he has been exchanged between ayllu with his consent. Thus, the dragon who leads his current ayllu has the lawful right to demand that Iskierka return him—and when she refuses, as of course she does, to demand that the champion of the state fight her on his behalf.
The champion is Manca Copacati, a venom-spitter. He doesn’t know that Iskierka is a fire-breather, and she conceals her ability until the decisive moment, winning the challenge.
Leaving is easier said than done, however, as the makeshift harness they escaped the island with is falling to pieces and they have no leather to replace it. Then Ferris appears with several baskets of leather, given by a local dragon as payment for three of the sailors. Laurence disapproves very strongly of “sell[ing] them for our gain,” and is able to talk two of the sailors into returning. The third, however, was the leader of the mutineers, and Temeraire (despite having begun to adopt Incan attitudes) agrees to leave him in return for more presents. The whole episode makes Laurence realize, “in some dismay, [that] the relations between captain and beast could with more rationality be given the character of possession by the latter, than the former.”
The journey to Titicaca feels “as though they walked through a stranger’s unattended house.” Taruca explains that before the plagues came, only half the ayllu had even one dragon among their curaca (chiefs); but the depopulation caused by the plagues means that almost all ayllu are headed by dragons now, who “are grown anxious, and do not like us to go anywhere; and rightly when they steal from one another.” The government has formed dragon patrols against theft of humans, which is helping.
They pass over Tiwanaku, a city of red stone now deserted, on the way to Titicaca. There, they find “a truly immense” and ancient dragon, Curicuillor, who leads Taruca’s ayllu and is very grateful for his return. She sends them to Cusco with her daughter, Churki (twenty years old and an army veteran), and a message from Taruca and his family asking to let them see the Sapa Inca.
On the way to Cusco, Churki introduces Hammond to coca leaves (to which he becomes addicted), and the entire party valiantly rescues humans and horses from a breaking rope bridge—which turn out to be the baggage-train of the French embassy.
In Cusco, they find De Guignes and the dragon Maila Yupanqui, who is “a lord of the Sapa Inca’s own ayllu.” Maila takes only Iskierka to be presented to the Sapa Inca, to the frustration and/or terror of Hammond, Temeraire, and Granby. Mrs. Pemberton insists on returning to the British, to De Guignes’ regret. She informs them that she and the French noblewomen are welcome at court, that De Guignes has not been permitted to see the Sapa Inca yet, and that the Sapa Inca is a woman: she is the widow of the prior ruler and the daughter of the one before that, who acted as intermediary while her husband was dying of the pox, and who subsequently convinced the chief dragons of the court that a woman was better suited to ruling, because she could remain at home under their protection instead of leading the army. Mrs. Pemberton doesn’t know what the French are negotiating for, and Hammond is at a loss.
Iskierka returns and announces that the Sapa Inca will see Granby, and also Temeraire and Laurence. At the meeting, Laurence recognizes that the Sapa Inca, Anahuarque, is exercising “a masterful degree of management” over the conversation, and diagnoses a waiting game, avoiding taking a consort by playing rivals against each other. Then they learn what the French are negotiating for: Napoleon has divorced Josephine and is free to remarry.
Iskierka triumphantly returns from extensive discussions with Maila to announce that the Sapa Inca will marry Granby. She overstates: the Sapa Inca is merely considering it, tempted by the prospects of Iskierka having eggs by Maila and of British expatriates to repopulate the ayllus.
Granby is horrified by the prospect, and quietly confesses to Laurence that he is an invert, that is, he is exclusively sexually attracted to men (Iskierka later indiscreetly reveals that he and Captain Little, of Immortalis, had been involved). Laurence doesn’t actually see this as a bar to a marriage of state, and Granby is eventually browbeaten into formally presenting himself as a suitor. The meeting, however, is interrupted by the arrival of Lien and two Flammes-de-Gloire.
Lien is carrying Napoleon, who has come to pay suit to the Sapa Inca in person. Maila does not want the Sapa Inca to go to France, so arranges a private meeting with the British party. But the Sapa Inca responds neither to Hammond’s “torrent of words” nor to Laurence’s warning that “[t]here are no bounds to [Napoleon’s] appetite for the conquest and subjugation of other men.” She also gives no hints of her inclinations at the later banquet, though Laurence sees “a look of cold and determined calculation in her face” as she looks at Napoleon describing the battle at Austerlitz.
Temeraire is uneasy at Lien’s claim that Celestials cannot breed with other kinds, particularly since none of the dragons in the breeding grounds had an egg by him. Iskierka is displeased that Maila is paying attention to the French Flammes-de-Gloire. Collectively, this leads them to attempting to conceive an egg that night. On their way back in the early morning, they see Incan soldiers preparing to ambush the British.
I learned about the plagues that devastated the American continents from Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s clearly written, very entertaining, and extremely informative. One of its early chapters is about the Incan empire, which in 1491 was “the greatest empire on earth,” and was known as Tawantinsuyu, the Land of the Four Quarters. (Crucible updates this to eight districts (Chapter 8) and the name to Pusantinsuyo.)
As relevant here: in our world successive epidemics of smallpox and other European diseases are estimated to have killed approximately 90% of the inhabitants of Tawantinsuyu, which is literally the stuff of nightmares. And those plagues naturally had enormous consequences for society, not the least of which is that the Spanish under Pizarro walked into a civil war caused by unclear lines of succession after smallpox killed the Sapa Inca and his heir.
(Note that in Crucible, surviving smallpox increases one’s social status; Taruca’s scars are one reason he is at high risk of being stolen (Chapters 8, 10), and Anahuarque brushes hers with gold dust (Chapter 11).)
This book maintains Atahualpa’s capture and killing by the Spanish as in our history, but has the Spanish immediately killed in response by a dragon (who then commits suicide). After this the Inca were, of course, extremely reluctant to permit any further interaction with Europeans. Thus, the structure of the empire survived: a single language imposed by government, massive systems of roads, redistribution of population (Churki notes that the Sapa Inca will sometimes redistribute humans among ayllus if one dragon has lost all of theirs), and a nonmarket economy. But it is still vastly underpopulated—the current population is “scarcely three million,” compared to Britain’s ten million (Chapter 10)—and thus dragons have come into much greater prominence in public life and humans have become a precious resource.
Anahuarque is a formidable woman, and I can’t say that she’s wrong to choose to marry Napoleon, both in positive benefits and in avoiding the risk of France as an enemy. It’s just that my sympathies as a reader lie elsewhere.
A couple small notes about the culture:
- I tend to be a bit of a hard sell when SFF works posit the survival of human sacrifice in Central and South American cultures, so I was glad to hear, in Chapter 9, that it’s no longer practiced—which of course makes particular sense here, given the depopulation of the country.
- Characters refer to Inti, who is the sun god, and Supay, the ruler of the underworld (Palta, the first dragon they meet, associated Temeraire with Supay because he is “all black and shriveled, as though [he] had been burned up”).
- Khipu (or quipu) are historical and fascinating, though apparently the extent they were a writing system as opposed to bookkeeping is still being debated.
- Granby observes twenty-six distinct breeds of dragon, including one that can fly backward. (Chapter 12.)
- I love Granby’s comparison of gifts given as thanks for receiving someone into the ayllu, to a dowry—yes, indeed, family structures are tied to economics in lots of ways and in many different societies. (Chapter 9.) Though I guess a bride-price is a more exact analogy.
Moving to smaller-scale matters of sex and reproduction: Granby’s use of “invert” may be slightly ahistoric, as Wikipedia suggests that it was widely used somewhat later in our world. But finding a comprehensible historical term that doesn’t have unwanted present-day connotations is not easy, so I’ll allow it. Note that conceptions of sexuality at the time did not neatly map onto present-day ones, as shown by Laurence’s understanding of homosexual activity as purely situational, something that “stem[med] from the lack of opportunity of a more natural congress,” and not something that might indicate a sexual orientation.
Laurence, Temeraire, and children. Temeraire tells Curicuillor that he hasn’t contemplated Laurence marrying (and privately considers the idea undesirable); she responds that if Laurence dies with no children, “you will be quite alone and it will serve you right, for not planning.” Later, Temeraire tells Laurence that “as for children, I had much rather have a properly trained crew.” (Chapters 10, 12.) Which is fine by Laurence, since he isn’t comfortable having children out of wedlock; I’m not sure if he realizes how much Temeraire is motivated by not wanting to share his attention.
As Granby puts it, Iskierka “has been chasing Temeraire for a year and ten thousand miles or thereabouts” in hopes of an egg with the divine wind and fire-breathing. She finally gets an egg, this book; we don’t know yet if it proves to be what she hopes.
One last thing of note: when Governor Hualpa says that “You Europeans are always lying,” Temeraire thinks, “in any case, he was Chinese.” (Chapter 9.) I don’t remember such a clear statement of his self-identity before, and so it deserved mention.
And now, on to Rio.
PART III (Chapters 14-19)
They flee from the Incan dragons, and try to decide where to go: Hammond urges that their duty lies in Rio, but the most direct route across the jungle will be very difficult. Then Churki arrives, saying that it is her duty to protect Hammond because she invited him to join her ayllu. Hammond convinces her not to take him back to her mother’s territory by citing his extensive family in England.
Churki warned them that patrol dragons were very close by, and they get aloft just before the patrol arrives. Iskierka is badly wounded; Temeraire kills several of the pursuers with a particularly intense version of the divine wind.
Iskierka suffers a high fever from her wounds, and Churki guides them to the Ucayali River, which leads to the Amazon River, which they follow across the continent to the eastern coast. Everyone is short-tempered from the heat, the insects, the vampire bats, the lack of coca leaves (in Hammond’s case), and the slowness of their travel, as Iskierka cannot fly for long. Worse, Granby’s arm was reinjured in the escape from the patrol dragons and he is very ill, but an attempt to amputate is interrupted by crocodiles eating the person who was going to do the surgery.
When they finally arrive at the Atlantic, Temeraire and Kulingile kill and bring back a blue whale for everyone to eat. They then head for Belém, where Granby’s arm is successfully amputated. Iskierka tricks Temeraire and Kulingile into letting her having the rest of the whale, which she renders down for sale. Granby refuses the gold-and-diamond hook she presents him with, though, and tells her flatly that he is “done with being dragged about, and made into what a lunatic might call a fashion-plate, and married off.” They settle on a serviceable steel hook and the rest of the money to go into supplies for the entire group, with later prizes to be invested in the Funds.
They arrive in Rio and find a ruined city, an enormous French dragon transport, and the Tswana dragon Kefentse.
Lethabo, formerly known as Mrs. Erasmus, is directing the search for Tswana survivors along with Kefentse. She tells Laurence that the Tswana did not destroy the city, but took it after the Portuguese burned it in a panic and fled. Laurence sees the thousands of former slaves making lives in the camp and Lethabo’s work to reunite ancestor dragons with their lost kin or their descendants, to the joy and comfort of all.
Lethabo says “this is no true alliance, and our King knows better than to trust Napoleon, but we have had not much opportunity to choose our allies in this cause.” Laurence offers her an alliance with the British instead, which she says may well be necessary to avoid serious bloodshed. There had been no battles yet: the former slaves in the camp were snatched out of nearby plantations by dragons, or fled there on their own as news spread. But the rescue efforts are at a stalemate because slave-owners are now using their slaves as hostages and threatening to burn them alive if dragons approach. The stalemate will not last long, however, because more dragons are coming to the conclusion that they must attack regardless; and that will inevitably result in a “bloodbath on all sides,” as Laurence puts it.
The British go to the Portuguese government outside of Rio. Laurence tells Prince Regent João that Napoleon has allied with the Inca, that the dragons available to the Portuguese will be wholly ineffectual against heavy-weights, and that if he hopes to preserve the colony from the Inca and the French, he should make peace with the Tswana and persuade them to settle among them. (Laurence has realized how difficult it will be to return to Africa the ten thousand refugees already in Rio, let alone the remaining slaves.) He leaves the Prince Regent to think about it, but warns him that none of the dragons with him will attack the Tswana. The rest of the aviators agree, though Granby is uneasy about the promised reinforcements that are supposed to meet them. Fortunately, that will not be a problem: Lily’s formation arrives at the end of the chapter.
Everyone enjoys the reunion and exchanges news. Unfortunately, this includes telling Harcourt, and everyone else, about the loss of the Allegiance and Riley’s death.
Negotiations between the Portuguese government and the Tswana begin, prompted by the arrival of Lily’s formation and another French transport with more Tswana dragons. The Portuguese seek to have the freed slaves remain on their estates, in an insultingly-transparent attempt to render their freedom ineffective. Lethabo and the Tswana general agree that the freed slaves “may be reunited with their ancestors upon the estates.” But the Portuguese do not realize that ancestors = dragons, and neither the Tswana nor Laurence enlighten them.
Many dragons are willing to stay rather than risk the dangers of crossing the Atlantic again (including Kefentse with Lethabo and her daughters), but a dozen wish to return immediately, accompanied by two thousand humans. Lethabo tells the British that “this truly is our price: all the slaves freed and reunited with their ancestors, and transport back for those who wish to go. If you cannot do it, we must yet treat with the French, and then, if the Portuguese will not free their slaves—”
Which means that for there to be peace in Portugal, the British must capture the French dragon transports.
Unfortunately the French have taken considerable precaution against this possibility: the transports and the accompanying small, fast frigates are not only heavily armed but protected against dragon-landing by bags of caltrops. Moreover, the British don’t have enough humans to sail the transports.
The latter difficulty is solved when Laurence and Temeraire find a whaler which reports a British frigate nearby, and the frigate’s captain reluctantly gives up a number of his crew.
The aviators and sailors attempt to take the transports without the dragons, by creeping aboard, taking down the caltrops, and hanging chainmail netting over the transports’ guns before attacking the sailors onboard. Iskierka wakes up and rouses the rest of the dragons, who help by dropping things on the frigates: rocks, caltrops that Iskierka breathes fire on, and Lily’s acid. Maximus and Temeraire are both shot, but the transports are successfully captured.
With the transports acquired, the Portuguese have grudgingly accepted the Tswana position, and the various transports are preparing to leave. Hammond is lamenting the prospect of Churki following him back to England, not to mention having to bring the news that another power has joined Napoleon, when Gong Su, the cook, brings them a very unexpected proposal: go to China instead.
It turns out that Gong Su’s master is Prince Mianning, and way back in Chapter 1 Shen Li brought Gong Su a letter from him, which directed Gong Su to invite Temeraire and Laurence to visit, “if circumstances should seem to make that desirable.” Laurence is considerably taken aback by this, and doubts Hammond’s immediate conclusion that an alliance is being proposed, but Gong Su tells him that “I have been impelled to speak as I have by those late events, which one must fear as altering for evil the very balance and the order of the world,” which makes the purpose of the visit as plain as possible.
Laurence tells Temeraire that he agrees that they should go, though their invitation is only from the crown prince and not the Emperor, and Captain Blaise of the dragon transport Potentate may not agree that they should go instead to China: “He is not Riley.” The book ends on a shared moment of grief and comfort.
This is the book that I forgot existed. To be fair, I forgot when I started reading Blood of Tyrants, and so Laurence had forgotten too. But on a reread, it definitely didn’t deserve being forgotten: I found it quite satisfying, though its nature as “part one of three of the ending trilogy” is a little more apparent than I’d remembered.
I mean, how great was it to see Lethabo again, calmly and implacably bending the world to her will? I worry that this solution is unrealistically optimistic, I admit, remembering massacres in our history like Tulsa and Rosewood—I know there are lots of differences between the situations, I just use those as examples of the mass violence that white people in our history have been willing to employ against prosperous black communities. However, if the Tswana’s military superiority doesn’t last long enough to get Brazil past the analogous point, at least the Tswana have considerably more mobility, so I think we might reasonably hope for at least a net gain over our history.
(I’m still musing on the potential timing of U.S. emancipation in this alternate history and wondering whether, for instance, one or more of the Indian nations with dragons might take an active abolitionist stand? (Many of those nations had personal experience with slavery as practiced by Euro-Americans.) My knowledge isn’t up to creating that scenario in any depth, but it reminds me why it’s important that Lethabo be given center stage in this section: dragons may speed up the process of dismantling institutional racism, but they aren’t necessary—actual humans can do, have done, and are doing it without fantasy creatures to help.)
It was also great to see Lily and Maximus and the rest of the formation again; I’ll always have a soft spot for them, the first friends Laurence and Temeraire made in the Corps. They report that Channel duty has been very quiet: “the French dragons have nearly all gone away, to Spain or to the east, and it is only a few unharnessed beasts who fly patrol along their coast now and never come across.” Harcourt is also raising her three-year-old son to be an aviator; he “can already climb the harness from belly-netting to the captain’s seat, all by himself.” My 4.5-year-old has started doing things like this (includes me for scale), so depending on how the carabiners are designed and how the rigging is spaced, I think it’s probably within a three-year-old’s abilities. Though absolutely terrifying to a non-aviator.
I suspect that Gong Su being Prince Mianning’s agent was not in the original conception of the character, because the bit where he asks to leave before they depart China, which was already puzzling, would then become entirely inexplicable. His transformation from cook to diplomat is pretty great, though.
Finally, I had a couple paragraphs about how I couldn’t tell when this book took place, but on reading ahead this gets addressed in the next book, so I’ll just summarize: this book starts in November 1809; it should, accordingly, finish in early 1810, but a couple characters refer to it being 1811; the next book adds in several off-screen months of staying in Brazil so that its action can take place in 1812.
Next week, we land in Japan and then head across Asia for Russia and a cliffhanger. 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.