The Temeraire Reread

The Temeraire Reread: Blood of Tyrants

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 (next week!). We continue this week with the eighth novel, Blood of Tyrants, in which we get involved in a land war in Asia. 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.

 

PART I (Chapters 1-7)

(There’s a map; I don’t have anything to say about it. If I’m overlooking something interesting, do let me know.)

Chapter 1

Laurence wakes on a beach and takes some time to even remember his own name. He is rescued and taken to a house, where he discovers that he has apparently lost his memory: he is in Japan, he has no idea why, and his reflection “might have aged years since he has seen himself last.” His host is courteous but clearly keeping him confined.

Shifting to Temeraire’s point-of-view, the dragon transport Potentate had grounded on rocks in a storm and Laurence had been swept overboard. Everyone but Temeraire believes that Laurence is dead. Temeraire intends to land and look for him, ignoring that foreign visitors are allowed only in Nagasaki. But Iskierka tells him he cannot leave, because the Potentate is still stuck on the rocks and she is about to have their egg.

Chapter 2

Laurence asks his host, Kaneko Hiromasa, to let him leave. Kaneko refers to a vow he made, to be of true service to Laurence, and says that he must write to “Lady Arikawa” and apologize for “undertak[ing] an oath which might expose her to charges of disobedience to the bakufu” (government). Laurence, therefore, must wait. Laurence asks for his clothes back and does not understand why they included an aviator’s coat, just as he did not understand why his sword (held by Kaneko) was of Chinese make. Laurence steals the sword from Kaneko’s office in the night, and is looking for a way out when he hears a dragon arrive.

Temeraire realizes that Laurence would consider it Temeraire’s duty to make sure the egg was safe before he went to look for Laurence. They decide to lever the ship off the rocks, and the dragons go to the shore to fell trees for this purpose. But they are attacked by a positively enormous Sui-Riu water-spouting dragon in the harbor. Though Temeraire’s divine wind does little against the Sui-Riu, the assembly of the entire formation causes him to withdraw.

Chapter 3

Laurence hides the sword outside and is taken to be interrogated. He does not say that he has lost his memory because he does not think he will be believed. Laurence learns that three years ago, the British ship Phaeton fired on Nagasaki and was destroyed, meaning that the bakufu were suspicious of the British even before a Longwing’s formation came and fought the Sui-Riu, Lord Jinai.

Laurence has a private conversation with Kaneko and confesses his amnesia. Laurence’s horror at hearing that the European year is 1812, eight years after his last memory, convinces Kaneko that he is being honest. Kaneko’s vow was to serve the person he found on the road with honor, and thus it would violate his vow for Laurence to be treated as a criminal. Lady Arikawa suggests that Laurence should be permitted to commit seppuku, but Laurence rejects the offer on religious grounds—which means that if Kaneko cannot keep his vow, seppuku may be Kaneko’s fate, and preferable to living in dishonor, at that.

Later that evening, a weaponless Laurence is about to attack two guards, when Junichiro, a sixteen-year-old who serves Kaneko and dislikes Laurence, helps him escape. They exit, pursued by a dragon.

Meanwhile, back at the Potentate, the dragons are levering the ship off the rocks by going to one end of the tree-trunks and deflating their air-sacs. This works too well: when the ship is raised up, it comes sliding down the levers toward them, and Temeraire is struck by the ship and knocked out.

Chapter 4

Three days later, Temeraire is prodded awake in Nagasaki Harbor by a Chinese doctor. Hammond tells everyone about the Phaeton, which he views as a disaster for British interests but which infuriates the sailors and aviators.

Laurence and Junichiro evade the dragon and sleep on the grounds of a temple. They are found the next morning by Lady Kiyomizu, the river-dragon of the temple; she takes them back to the temple proper so Laurence can recite English poetry to her and gets them stinking drunk. The next morning, Junichiro explains that he helped Laurence escape to save Kaneko’s honor (Junichiro’s family were ronin and are all dead, which is why Lady Arikawa let them escape). Lady Kiyomizu comes back demanding more poetry and Laurence tells her that they need to leave; Junichiro is absolutely appalled, but she takes it fairly calmly and says that they will go to the sea together the next morning.

Laurence and Junichiro are carried in saddlebags, basically, as Kiyo (as she tells Laurence to call her) swims down the Chikugo River to the Ariaka Sea, across which is Nagasaki. But Kiyo pauses their journey when signaled by villagers, who need her to save the fields from a frost by inhaling a great quantity of river and exhaling it steaming-hot into irrigation channels. At the resulting banquet, the villagers realize that Laurence is a European.

Chapter 5

Temeraire remains extremely concerned about Laurence. He invites over a lightweight dragon aboard a Dutch ship, hoping to induce someone else to look for him. The British dragons are surprised to find that the ship is American and only flying under Dutch colors on contract, and that the dragon, one John Wampanoag of Salem, Massachusetts, is part-owner of the ship. Temeraire asks Wampanoag to look for news of a “lost sailor” and assures him that they are not there to seek retribution for the Phaeton.

Laurence and Junichiro escape the gathering and steal a fishing-boat, but Laurence is recognized when their boat gets entangled with a ferry. They get a little way downstream and then jump for the shore.

Chapter 6

Laurence and Junichiro walk to the sea and cross on a makeshift raft. At Nagasaki, they find Kaneko and Lady Arikawa between them and the tiny Dutch settlement, and step off the road and try to go around.

Temeraire had seen Lady Arikawa arriving earlier and speaking with Wampanoag, and recognized her for a person of substance. In his anxiety for something to happen, he takes entirely the wrong lesson out of Hammond explaining why the Japanese were nervous about the Potentate‘s arrival, and suggests a set of military exercises, which are capped by Iskierka’s fire-breathing.

Wampanoag comes to them with a scrap of cloth that is unmistakably from Laurence’s shirt, and when Temeraire distantly asks where it was found, says that the Japanese “weren’t inclined to be talkative, after that show you lot put on.” (The Japanese have built their local warehouses, and everything else, in wood.) Hammond arranges that they will leave immediately, and Temeraire sinks into despair as they wait for their tide.

Laurence and Junichiro come back to the shore, where Laurence sees the Potentate making sail and signals for assistance. Kaneko finds them and tells Laurence that he may surrender and be made prisoner by the shogun. But that will not satisfy Kaneko’s vow, and so Laurence fights Kaneko in recognition of his obligation to Junichiro and in hope of rescue. Lady Arikawa captures Laurence before Kaneko can commit suicide on Laurence’s sword. She is about to bitterly adhere to her duty and take Laurence prisoner, when an enormous black dragon lands and demands Laurence’s return on pain of war: “He is a prince of China, and my captain.” Laurence’s response? “The devil I am.”

Chapter 7

On board the Potentate, Laurence admits his amnesia and is naturally grieved to hear that Riley is dead. The ship’s surgeon insists that further shocks to Laurence’s “already-weakened mind must be dangerous,” with particular, though naturally unspoken, reference to Laurence’s treason. Though Laurence wants to be told more in hopes of repairing his memory, Hammond convinces him that his duty lies not in going mad, but in studying for the mission to China. Laurence goes to comfort Temeraire (“a first-rate off a lee-shore, and his the duty to keep her off the rocks”)—interrupting Hammond in the process, who is trying to explain the need to not mention the treason. Laurence is shown Temeraire and Iskierka’s egg, which reassures him somewhat about Temeraire’s ability to understand duty.

Wampanoag comes to tell Temeraire that he has helped negotiate for the Potentate to leave after a farewell dinner given by the Japanese, so that no-one loses face, and also that the Japanese are considering a trade treaty with the Americans. (Kiyo was in favor of this on the Japanese side, she tells Laurence at the dinner.) Laurence says farewell to Kaneko, whose honor has been satisfied (at least according to Lady Arikawa) and who is clearly grieving for Junichiro, who will leave Japan with Laurence.

As they make sail, Laurence realizes that Temeraire is not conversing with the other dragons, and goes to offer him company. Temeraire suggests they read the Principia Mathematica, and Laurence automatically climbs up onto Temeraire’s foreleg to sit.

Laurence sat still a moment with the book open upon his lap, struggling with a kind of horror between bone-deep familiarity and endless strangeness.

“Laurence?” the dragon asked, anxiously. “Are you well? Shall I send for the ship’s surgeon?”

“I am well,” Laurence said, drawing his breath deep; for what alternative was there? “Where should you like me to begin?”

Commentary

I see what you did there, series: that’s a (terrible, heartbreaking) callback to the end of Victory of Eagles.

So let’s start there, with the amnesia plot [*]. I was seriously not a fan of it when I first read this book, and I’m going to talk myself through it in this post to see what I think now.

[*] In a sign of my life right now, I keep wanting to type “insomnia” instead of “amnesia”; in case I miss one, sorry, that’s what happened. (Also, dear readers, I tried mightily to make this post shorter, but (a) this book is genuinely long (another chapter record, at 20) and (b) I ran out of time. I’m sorry.)

From a big-picture story point of view, the reason for the Japan interlude is to acquire Junichiro—this isn’t a spoiler, there’s a big flashing sign over Junichiro’s head to this effect in Chapter 20. What would have happened if Laurence had washed up on shore with his memory? Kaneko would still be put in a conflict between his vow and the law, and Junichiro would still be motivated to help Kaneko escape that conflict. Maybe Laurence might rely on diplomatic negotiations instead of escape; but maybe he’d feel the need to escape even more acutely, between (a) the Japanese suspicion and fear of both Britain and China, which would be heightened if his true identity was known, and (b) Laurence’s knowing that Temeraire must be frantic with worry. So I’m not convinced that Laurence needed to lose his memory for the Japan plot to work.

And from a non-plot point of view, well, this regresses Laurence to the very first page of the series. And keeps him that way for a long damn time, all the way to the end of Chapter 15. All the learning to be friends with Temeraire, angsting over dragons acting independently, angsting over treason (don’t think I didn’t notice in Chapter 3 when he thinks “He himself would gladly have accepted death as the price of escaping some dishonorable act, certainly before treason”), all of it all over again.

I understand that the goal may have been interpersonal conflict to run alongside the external perils of intrigue, war, and whatnot. But if something this artificial and regressive was the only thing that would serve this purpose while fitting the shape of the story, I would much rather have had it left out entirely.

Huh. Before this post I would have said this was my least favorite book after Tongues of Serpents, and now I’m not sure that it isn’t my least favorite, period. Tough call.

Let’s turn to worldbuilding stuff. First, Japan. There is a fairly dense reference in chapter 3, when the Japanese interrogator tells Laurence that

[A Celestial] has not been seen across the sea for five centuries, since the servants of the Yuan emperor stole the last egg of the Divine Wind line from Hakozaki Shrine as he withdrew in ignominy from his attempt at conquest, his murderous beasts having slain the rest of that noble line.

The Yuan Emperor referred to was Kublai Khan, who in our history unsuccessfully invaded Japan in 1274 (and also 1281). We previously heard of him in His Majesty’s Dragon, chapter 8: Sir Edward Howe’s book of dragon stories from Asia included the tale of “the Japanese dragon Raiden, who had driven the armada of Kublai Khan away from the island nation.” In our history, the Hakozaki Shrine burned to the ground when the Yuan invaders landed, but as Sir Edward noted in the supplementary material to Throne of Jade, water-spouters are “inexpressibly valuable not only in battle, but in the protection of the wooden buildings of Japan from the dangers of fire.” (Wikipedia has a whole page on “Fires in Edo.”) So the Shrine survived to the end of the invasion. Nothing comes to mind as a parallel for eradicating Celestial dragons from Japan, however, and I suspect this is merely to keep Japan a lesser military power and therefore preserve their relative historical positions.

Other Japan notes: Lord Jinai is four hundred years old. I wonder if all Japanese dragons are addressed as Lord or Lady? And Kiyo’s frost-banishing ability suggests to Laurence that the Japanese might gain “an entirely additional growing-season,” another solution to the “how do you feed dragons” problem.

There’s a few tidbits about the United States via John Wampanoag. First, of course, his tribe was presumably not nearly-eradicated in King Philip’s war, and also it adopted a number of Dutch “back during the quarreling over New Amsterdam that was.” And second, the president is Tecumseh, who defeated Hamilton—that’s actually two divergences for the price of one, since Hamilton’s fatal duel with Aaron Burr (sir) was in 1804 in our world. We haven’t got enough information to draw even dotted lines as to how those divergences came about, so these are more cameos or Easter eggs than anything, but they’re fun.

In terms of languages, does anyone know why bakufu and ronin aren’t italicized, but seppuku is? Or is this some weird ebook thing?

Finally, chapter 5 fixes the broken timeline I mentioned last book:

The Portuguese owners had been as laggard as they could in freeing many of their slaves, and those released had not all been perfectly happy to find themselves subsequently claimed as the family of the Tswana dragons, however much cherished by the same. But so far the arrangement had held, at least in name; they had remained in Brazil several months to see it established, despite all their urgent wish to be on the way to China, and Temeraire counted it yet as a success.

I can’t regard this as anything but timeline-fixing, and honestly will pretend it didn’t actually happen.

 

PART II (Chapters 8-15)

Chapter 8

Laurence tries to adjust on the way to China. He is tutored endlessly by Hammond and Gong Su; reads letters from his mother and from Jane Roland, which lead him to the baffling conclusion that Emily Roland is his daughter (Temeraire later disabuses him of this); worries about Junichiro, who does whatever he is asked and otherwise remains solitary; and spends more time with Temeraire, working on maneuvers and reading Percy Shelley’s Zastrozzi, which they both dislike for different reasons.

In China at their formal audience with Crown Prince Mianning, a Chinese man dressed as a Westerner rolls in an incendiary. Laurence and Temeraire work seamlessly together to minimize the damage caused by the bomb, and Laurence and Mianning are evacuated by four guard dragons—not to the Summer Palace, as they should be, but to the estate of Lord Bayan, a member of the conservative party who oversaw preparations for the meeting.

When they arrive, Lord Bayan places them under very heavy guard and Mianning tells Laurence that the conspirators cannot leave them alive. They start a fire and get into the open in the resulting confusion, and are being pursued by many guards when Temeraire arrives. The four guard dragons try to attack Temeraire, who kills one of them and cows the rest into submission.

Temeraire takes Laurence and Mianning back to Mianning’s palace; Mianning tells them that he will not publicly accuse Bayan, because now he has something certain to hold over the conservative party’s heads. Until then, he had no evidence, not even in the death of his dragon companion (Temeraire’s twin), Chuan.

Chapter 9

Gong Su explains that Chuan had been poisoned six months ago, and there is no other Celestial to be Mianning’s companion. Laurence is worried that Hammond might ask him to give up Temeraire, which is made worse when Granby reveals that the Admiralty would be delighted by “anything so neat as giving them a treaty and being shot of Temeraire all at once.” Hammond assures them that this is not his plan; instead, he intends to propose “Temeraire’s favoring them with an egg.”

Temeraire and Mei, who Temeraire courted in Throne of Jade, agree to attempt conception. Mei is very worried that Chuan’s murderers might gain control of the throne and asks Temeraire whether he would stay in China. Temeraire asks Laurence, but Laurence doesn’t realize he means both of them staying, which horribly upsets Temeraire. Laurence apologizes but Temeraire will not resume the discussion. At this point, a message from the Emperor arrives demanding, in the idiom of the court, Laurence’s immediate attendance.

Laurence, Mianning, and Bayan are received privately by the Emperor, who is visibly unwell but still decisive. Mianning and Bayan joust over the international balance of power in light of Napoleon’s conquests and British defiance of the Emperor’s restrictions on the opium trade; Bayan says that “General Fela, whom you charged with repressing the remnants of the White Lotus rebellion … has seen the British bringing those evil traitors aid, in the form of this evil drug.” Laurence reflexively denies this, which Bayan uses to suggest sending Laurence and Temeraire to aid Fela. To Laurence’s surprise, Mianning joins this suggestion as long as Laurence is sent “with a force appropriate to his rank.” The Emperor orders Laurence to take General Chu and “three jalan of dragon bannermen … to deal with the rebellion and uncover the source of these strange and evil rumors about your country-men, proving them false if you can.”

Chapter 10

General Chu is delightfully unimpressed with Temeraire and the formation, and has them set off immediately, with the jalan to assemble on the way. They land at a pavilion, where Mianning explains that this mission will allow Mei and Temeraire more time to attempt to conceive away from the potentially-dangerous gossip of court, and also will provide Laurence with a ready-made force of a size that would be “natural” to send against Napoleon.

The British have no idea how big a jalan is and for some reason don’t just ask, and are surprised by the end of the first week of travel to be leading forty dragons.

Chapter 11

The British aviators realize that the number of dragons is attributable to feeding them on porridge with relatively little meat, but are still impressed at the ease of their assembly. Laurence is furious when Hammond admits that the British Government winks at British merchants evading the restrictions on opium trading (Hammond: “I wish you would not insist on reducing such tangled matters to angels and devils”). While Hammond does flatly deny any involvement with the White Lotus, Laurence fears a less-official British plot, which would also be covertly encouraged by Government.

While Laurence, Mrs. Pemberton, and Roland are having a conversation away from the main camp, they are attacked by assassins. They defeat them but the last assassin kills himself rather than be captured and questioned. Hammond sees the attack as explaining Bayan’s motives for sending them away from the capital and warns that General Fela is also one of the conservative party.

At Xian, they discover that three jalan = three hundred dragons. All the British and Junichiro, especially, are stunned. When they arrive at General Fela’s encampment, he claims that they just destroyed a village harboring the White Lotus rebels, where they found British opium.

Chapter 12

Specifically, Fela claims to have found the village (but not the rebels, who fled) by following a British dragon carrying opium—twenty thousand pounds’ worth, which when viewed is obviously from a single British ship. Laurence is incandescently angry, but Granby points out that Fela is not being fully truthful because the British do not use dragons to carry cargo. Hammond sends a letter to the Emperor, with Mei’s help. While waiting for a response, Laurence talks with Mrs. Pemberton, which an anxious Temeraire misinterprets as romantic interest, in light of how changed Laurence is. In the resulting conversation, Temeraire mentions “our valley, in New South Wales”—not realizing that Laurence had forgotten their treason and transportation.

Chapter 13

Laurence is unable to conceive what might have brought him to commit treason, and tells Granby, “I think I can scarcely blame myself, if having forgotten, I did not wish to remember this.” He is still deeply distressed, but realizes that Temeraire must be as well, and goes to speak with them.

Temeraire is, indeed, “as wretched as ever he had been.” In his typical desire for action, he goes to look for the rebels, and makes Ferris, Forthing, and Sipho come along, so they won’t go tell Laurence. They unexpectedly find the Turkestan feral Arkady, who is hobbled in a hastily-abandoned encampment; Arkady was coming overland with a message from Temeraire and was captured by dragons. They are all then trapped by a rockslide and attacked by soldiers of the army.

Laurence notices that Temeraire is missing, realizes how much he cares for him, and asks a strangely-formal Captain Little to take him on a search. Little agrees and they find the trapped dragons, but Immortalis is attacked by an army dragon as Laurence and Little fight the soldiers who are literally hacking Temeraire apart. Then Kulingile arrives and kills the army dragon and soldiers. While they slowly dig out the trapped dragons and people, Temeraire asks Laurence whether he would have been happier if he had never met Temeraire, and offers to stay alone in China, or let Laurence stay while he leaves. Laurence refuses, instinctively, saying that he will not unmake his own choices.

Chapter 14

Everyone is freed; Temeraire and Arkady stay at the little camp so as not to alert General Fela before they can get proof. Arkady says he’s been captive a month and mentions “we”; when Laurence asks what he meant, he says “in feigned tones of great surprise, ‘Why, Tharkay was with me, of course; haven’t you rescued him yet?’”

The British confer and Hammond realizes there are no rebels: they were created to undermine Prince Mianning’s influence at court, but now that Laurence was sent out with a separate force, Fela was forced to quickly discredit or kill them. They decide they must have help to get proof and find Tharkay, and enlist General Chu to survey the area.

Chu is resistant to the idea that Fela manufactured the rebels, but when Laurence asks whether he has seen any evidence at all, he agrees to take a look. He brings them to a White Lotus fortification inside a cave that he remembers, which is occupied.

An aerial battle ensues and is eventually won by Chu’s dragons. Laurence fights his way into the caves to rescue Tharkay, with soldiers loaned by Chu. He takes a blow to the head and feels a strange familiarity as he goes down a narrow passageway and opens a wooden door.

There was a room, and a pallet inside it; a small torch burned low in a socket upon the wall. A man lay upon the cot, his face bruised and battered, his hands curled against his chest bloody: and Laurence knew him; knew him and knew himself. He remembered another door opening, in Bristol, three years before, and a voice asking him to come outside his prison, in a Britain under siege.

“Tenzing,” Laurence said, and, as Tharkay opened feverish eyes, went to help him stand.

Chapter 15

Tharkay had been sent with the news of Napoleon’s plan to invade Russia in June with La Grande Armée: nearly a million men and a hundred dragons. It is now May 3, 1812, and they make immediate plans to return to the capital (Temeraire has already executed General Fela).

At the capital, they install Temeraire and Iskierka’s egg in state and under guard in Prince Mianning’s palace. Mei tells Temeraire that Mianning is sending her and a minister to search incoming ships and burn opium when they find it. They say farewell, with the possibility of Temeraire returning after the war and trying again to give her an egg, as they were not successful this time.

Temeraire and Laurence confer with Gong Su, General Chu, and a dragon in charge of supply named Shen Shi, about getting to Moscow (Hammond, reluctantly, will go with them). Harcourt decides to take her formation to the Peninsula, where it could tip the balance; Laurence encourages Demane to go with them, so that he can prove himself as a captain on the battlefield under Roland and Wellington. Laurence says farewell to Granby and Little (giving them a reassurance of his discretion about their now-remembered relationship), and gets ready to leave with Tharkay, who is still recovering from his torture. Temeraire and Laurence are optimistic about finally beating Napoleon, in light of the aerial advantage they will bring and Napoleon’s need to use some of his ground forces to keep his lines of retreat open.

Commentary

The first time I read this book, I was pretty grumpy about the resolution of the White Lotus plot, because I was reading too fast in hopes that Laurence would get his memory back, already, and so I missed that the British were indeed, as Laurence says, engaged in “deliberate, orchestrated defiance of the law” regarding opium imports. Because the British conduct in trying to sell opium in China was indeed terrible, and so my mistaken reading of the book made it seem like Fela’s plot was minimizing the British conduct. I’m glad to be wrong.

(The White Lotus Rebellion was suppressed in 1804. General Chu remembers flying the northern plains for the great Kang-Xi Emperor, which would have been in the 1680s. Also, how great is General Chu? A grumpier version of Celeritas, who I really hope has been let out of the breeding grounds in Ireland by now.)

As for the resolution of Laurence’s amnesia: you may recall that I ship Laurence/Tharkay, so that scene was a gift (as is Tharkay casually addressing Laurence as “Will” throughout the rest of the book), but I still wish the entire plot hadn’t been drawn out so long, as stated above. (Also, I hate to say it, but Tharkay found him in Dover, not Bristol.)

There’s something like a justification for the amnesia plot in chapter 15, when Laurence thinks while his memory is still coming back,

he felt no longer that strange sense of division from himself. Even that, he now recognized, was not so great a distance from the state of his mind these last several years. He was divided from the man he had once been, and by a gulf he could no longer cross.

But I still feel like we knew that already. It is, however, hilarious to hear both Tharkay and Granby reject Laurence’s suggestion that the amnesia was caused by his cowardice:

“I am of the opinion,” Tharkay said, “that you ought not assign to free will something more likely the consequence of a sharp blow to the skull.”

Granby snorted. “You are the only fellow I can think of, Laurence, whose notion of a weak-minded retreat would be to cast your own head ahoo and slog onwards confused beyond everything, and nearly kill yourself thrice over.”

Yes, that’s all those characters in a nutshell. Though my favorite conversation so far in the book is probably back in chapter 6, when Forthing tells Temeraire that he has a son in England: “‘Well,’ [Temeraire] added, ‘it does not make me like you any better; having a son is no excuse for looking like a shag-bag.'” Temeraire then goes on to passionately upbraid Forthing for the state of his shirt (dirty) and his coat (“nothing like green: not at all“).

I realize this is a very frivolous note to end this section on, but I think we need it. Also there will be more than enough logistics and grimness next section, though I will attempt to pass lightly over both. *check word count, despairs*

 

PART III (Chapters 16-20)

Chapter 16

Laurence and Hammond are in Moscow trying to get someone to believe that they are bringing three hundred dragons. Laurence meets Dyhern, a Prussian aviator who had been taken prisoner in Black Powder War. (He escaped but thinks his dragon is being held in France; Temeraire says that when they return to England, he will ask one of the unharnessed couriers to cross the Channel and inquire at the French breeding grounds.) Dyhern explains that many are skeptical because they remember how Britain did not send their promised twenty dragons during the Prussian campaign, and agrees to help Temeraire’s flight crew, which is badly short-handed.

At the Chinese encampment, General Chu explains that the Chinese dragons have not been seen because they are traveling in very small groups at least twenty miles apart, so that they do not overburden the resources of the land they are traveling through. Chu emphasizes that the countryside is so poor that they must find the French army soon so that the Chinese dragons can join together, defeat it, and leave.

Temeraire decides they should ask the Russian dragons where the French army is, since “they must be hearing of it from their officers every minute.” Well, no: at the main covert, they find a heavyweight armored dragon literally atop hoards of treasure, who doesn’t even know that she is in an army. Her captain arrives and tells Laurence to “keep your three hundred fairy tales, and take this trained dog of yours away to them, also!”

As they are about to leave, a wounded dragon comes flying in; his captain reports that they have been run out of Smolensk and are retreating rapidly.

Chapter 17

It is August 30, the Russian army is retreating in disarray, and when Laurence finally finds a Russian general—Kutuzov—he won’t see them. Chu says that if the Russians will not speak with him, the Chinese dragons will go home: “I will not spend my soldiers for fools, nor expose them to those guns for no purpose.” Tharkay gets an audience by borrowing Laurence’s extra-fancy Chinese robes and letting the Russians assume that he is a Chinese prince.

Now in company with Kutuzov, they keep retreating toward Moscow. As they go, they learn more about the Russian dragons: the light-weights are at the beck and call of the heavy-weights and eat only whatever scraps they can find; and the Russians entirely reject the idea of recruiting the feral dragons in their breeding grounds.

When the Russians finally decide to fight, General Chu says that he needs “four days to concentrate upon the battlefield.” Kutuzov realizes they do not have four days of retreat to spare, and asks the Tsar to request a temporary truce for negotiations.

At the negotiations, Lien is not present (she is guarding Napoleon and Anahuarque’s four-month-old son in Paris), but there are a dragon officer in the Incan armies and what is later revealed to be a dragon Marshal. But the French dragons are understaffed and undersupplied, and the Russian mood is further lightened by the news of Wellington’s victory at Salamanca.

In the first day of negotiations, “Napoleon, it was evident to see, saw himself a seducer; and to oblige him Alexander made himself out a maiden to be courted, and as coy as any skillful courtesan played off his suitor’s ardent attempts to reach a consummation.” But this puts Alexander “in a rage of humiliation,” and his pretense breaks in the second day. As Napoleon leaves the conference, he is nearly attacked by a Russian dragon spurred by its handler, which causes him to take note of the Russian dragons’ spiked bridles and hostility toward their handlers.

Kutuzov says that they have gained enough time to fall back to the fortified town of Borodino to wait for the Chinese dragons—who he still isn’t entirely convinced exist.

Chapter 18

It is September 7 at Borodino and Laurence wakes to the news that a French patrol saw the first jalan arriving late the night before. Laurence goes to tell Kutuzov that they must pursue the French army immediately, but is forced to wait nearly three hours and then is not believed—until two messengers arrive to say that the French are falling back everywhere and that “There are a thousand dragons (sic) coming from the east.”

Napoleon moved fast enough, and Kutuzov slow enough, to prevent a Russian attack on the French rearguard. Battle will instead be joined at a nearby town which the French have thoroughly fortified.

Chapter 19

Battle begins. The French have set their artillery so that the Chinese dragons will only be able to attack the French twenty at a time, but the Chinese dragons still outnumber the French 300 to 60. Temeraire is deeply frustrated at being forced to observe the battle in order to learn how to manage it and save his strength for a decisive moment, but obeys Chu.

The battle seems to be going well, when a Chinese commander brings Chu a sample of what sounds like jerky, which is too much supply for the French dragons present. Chu orders scouts to investigate and then is gravely injured by French artillery that snuck up on the Russian rear. Temeraire briefly entertains fantasies of taking command and smashing the French forces with the divine wind, but then asks Laurence for advice and takes it: he appoints the most senior jalan leader to the command and tells her that she should plan on more French soldiers coming, because “it is just the sort of thing Napoleon likes to do.” And he is correct: the French are reinforced with forty dragons and twenty thousand men on foot, likely originally intended to take Moscow.

The Russian army is able to retreat thanks to Kutuzov’s caution; he also decides to abandon Moscow for a well-supplied strategic position in the south. As they help evacuate Moscow, they see Russian soldiers deliberately burning their own city to deny its shelter to Napoleon.

Chapter 20

Laurence and Tharkay are scouting in Moscow, to try and get a sense of what Napoleon intends to do. Kutuzov would be glad to have Napoleon sit in Moscow as long as he wanted, while the French supply disintegrates, but Laurence did not “feel it at all consistent with the duty he owed the Emperor of China, to strand his borrowed legions in the midst of Russia with inadequate supply during the oncoming winter.” They see that Murat’s dragon Liberté has brought a starving French dragon out of the breeding grounds, which like the rest has been hobbled to keep it there.

Laurence furiously tells Temeraire of the hobblings, at the same moment they are finally ordered to attack. Laurence realizes that the defeat of Napoleon is within their grasp, but resolves that after the war, if the Russians will not un-hobble their dragons, he and Temeraire will do so and offer them work in China.

Laurence goes to General Kutuzov to tell him of this plan, who is surprisingly—unsurprised. He tells Laurence that the Russians had all debated whether they could afford help from Laurence and Temeraire: what with the Prussian campaign and the plague and Brazil and all, “Where you go, you leave half the world overturned behind you.” But Kutuzov sees the logic in Laurence’s position, especially since the Tsar wants to chase the French all the way to Paris, and agrees to free the dragons from the breeding grounds—once they are sure they can feed them, because it was not so long ago that Russia experienced the Time of Troubles, when dragons ate humans for lack of other food.

Previously, after seeing the assembled jalan, Junichiro had fiercely devoted himself to learning English, French, and aerial tactics. He comes to Laurence to say that he must end his service to Laurence, either with Laurence’s permission or by killing himself: he intends to go to Napoleon and ask him to send an envoy to Japan, because Japan needs allies against China. Laurence recognizes the risks, but also that Junichiro is correct and that he has no right to stop him. Junichiro leaves after swearing not to reveal any information about the Chinese or Russian forces.

The Russians win an unqualified victory in the assault ordered back when Laurence learned about the hobblings, and Temeraire is incredibly optimistic: Napoleon’s whole army has been located, and even though the second jalan was sent back to China, they still have aerial superiority. And the resulting battle is indeed going well, until a courier comes flying in with the news that Murat released all the Russian dragons from the nearby breeding grounds and directed them at the Russian supply-train. A hundred or more ferals attack the Russians (only about a dozen attack the French), and when the Chinese dragons defend the supply, some of the ferals seize wounded soldiers from the field hospital. The Russians retreat south, and hear news that farms and villages have also been attacked by Russian ferals, who the French have put out cooking-pits to feed.

It is October 25 and Napoleon has three choices: “he might retreat himself towards Moscow and from there retire to Smolensk along the road which had brought him, or he might instead try and take a southern route; or if he had not yet lost the heart for a final adventure, even strike out for Kaluga [the main supply base to the south] after all, and throw a gauntlet once more in the teeth of the Russian Army.”

Laurence and the Chinese dragons agree to secure the nearby heavy-weight breeding grounds, as they are haunted by the deaths of the wounded soldiers. There, they capture Murat, but too late to prevent him from freeing forty-odd heavy-weights and setting them on Kaluga, where they destroy or steal massive quantities of supplies. Not only that, but twenty Russian light-weights have defected to the French army.

The book ends with the news that:

Napoleon’s army had begun to move south, along the Kaluga Road. He was coming. He had chosen the great gamble. A cold and stinging wind was blowing into Laurence’s face; he rubbed away sleep, and found his hand wet; he looked up. Snow was falling.

Winter had come.

Commentary

And … cliffhanger! But it’s only six days until y’all can find out how it’s resolved.

The reason for the Russian treatment of their dragons is left pretty late: some time within recent memory, dragons started eating people in the absence of other food, something traumatic enough to get capital letters (“the Time of Troubles”), depictions in fine art (the painting described in the very long chapter 20), and, one presumes, the decision to control dragons through pain and, sometimes, treasure. And that’s understandable, though short-sighted: note if they had acted just a little quicker, they would have prevented the horror unleashed by Murat.

Generally, the series has been pretty good at having dragon rights run alongside human rights, not substituting for them or displacing them—a common problem when SFF uses mythical creatures as metaphors for real-world marginalized groups, thereby replacing them. But this book only has room for a passing mention of the needs of Russian humans: Laurence thinks that “the condition of the Russian peasantry, very little removed from slavery, was nearly as pitiable as that of the dragons; and yet there was something intolerable in the spectacle of hundreds of beasts so hobbled that they might not even fly as was their nature, but instead were confined to scrabbling in pits.” I realize the structure of the entire Russian economy is thoroughly outside the scope of this book, but I did find Laurence’s self-justification a little dissatisfying.

Look at Temeraire’s character growth, shown by his not fighting even though technically he had the right! It’s true that when he did get to lead an attack, he brings the supporting Chinese dragons a little too close to the artillery in his reluctance to come away from the battle, and one dragon is injured, but hopefully that is also a not-too-pricey lesson (this was a bit I eliminated from the chapter 20 summary).

I managed to also entirely omit the Russian light-weight dragon Grig from the summary, in my unsuccessful attempt to keep this post under seven thousand words. Grig is skilled at learning languages, was one of the light-weights that Laurence recruited as messenger between the Chinese and Russian armies, and was deceiving Laurence and Temeraire about how maltreated he is. It’s explicitly stated in chapter 20 that he was set on them as a spy; probably this was after Temeraire and Laurence showed up at the breeding grounds and Grig’s captain called Temeraire a trained dog.

I don’t have a lot to say about the military campaign, in part because it is literally stupidly late as I finish this post and in part because at the end of the book we don’t know where it’s going: until the attacks of the ferals, it seemed that the general course of events was trending roughly the same way as in our history, even if some specifics were slightly altered to suit. And since I am still pretending I haven’t read the last book, I fear to say too much in case spoilers leak through.

 

And on that note, I think I will leave you until next week, when I post a spoiler-free review of League of Dragons, which will be followed two weeks later with a spoiler post. 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.

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