Friday, November 6, 2009

Cannonball Redux #1 - "Empire of Ivory" by Naomi Novik

Maybe it's fitting that my first book for Cannonball Redux is Empire of Ivory (2007) by Naomi Novik, since I started out this series, about a dragon named Temeraire, last year because of other Cannonball reviews. I don't generally read fantasy books or books that have dragons, but it sounded fun. And now the compulsive side of me has kicked in and I have decided that I will finish out this series.

Empire of Ivory is the fourth book in a series that (I think) is planned for nine books, although only five have been written so far. The series follows the adventures of Captain Will Lawrence of the Aerial Corps and his dragon, Temeraire, in Britain in the early 19th Century. Novik takes the historical context of the Napoleonic Wars but inserts dragons into her world. The dragons are smart, capable of talking, and have incredibly disparate personalities and skills, while being incredibly loyal to their friends and handlers.

While reading the third book, I was definitely getting a little bored and annoyed. Not much was going on and I was having some major problems with a couple of plot points. So, it was more out of duty than excitement, that I finally picked up Empire. Happily, I enjoyed this last one more than books 2 and 3. There still might have been a couple slow points, and a lot of the wonder and creativity of Novik's world has gotten a little stale since the first book, but there are still many engaging and sympathetic characters that kept me involved. Also, this latest book occurs in Africa, and seemed to have a little more action.

There is one aspect of Novik's writing that I find interesting but also somewhat frustrating: Novik picks up on a number of interesting questions and tensions in her world, but then she doesn't fully address them. For instance, women serve in the Aerial Corps because a type of dragon (Longwings) only accept women as trainers; so in the small world of the Aerial Corps, women have been thrust forward a couple hundred years when it comes to their rights and responsibilities. Novik has created a pretty interesting situation, but the little tension and conflict it elicits doesn't dig very deep. The women never have any issues with giving up their children, living a life of secret, or never being a part of society. Instead, Novik primarly focuses on how Lawrence is often surprised and uncomfortable with the role that women play in the Corps.

In addition, I think Novik brings up the question of why the dragons are fighting, or if it's even moral to pit them against one another. The dragons fight the Napoleonic Wars out of loyalty for their handlers, and many of them enjoy the challenge and excitement. But they don't have any interest in the politics of it, and even Lawrence realizes that Temeraire would be just as happy, if not more so, fighting for the French. But then she doesn't take the question to its conclusion. Temeraire is pretty independent and opinionated and would not stand long to be ordered on so many pointless errands and distructive wars--killing the French dragons that he easily befriends in other circumstances. At times, I feel sure the dragons will give up on England and fly off on their own. They are smart and incredibly powerful and are perfectly capable of dominating the human populations.

I also found the ending kind of surprising and somewhat unbelievable. *Spoiler* Lawrence is so horrified that the British sent an ill and infected dragon to the French that he goes rogue, steals the antidote from his own country, and delivers it to the French--all because he does not want other dragon populations to suffer. Then, out of some misguided loyalty for his country, he heads back to England with Temeraire knowing that he is facing a hanging for treason. I have a number of problems with Lawrence's decisionmaking here, but perhaps it's just because I value my life over loyalty to a political state. How can Lawrence have no problem with war--whose basic premise relies on sacrificing men and women for whatever political objective seems so important at the time--but be so offended by spreading disease to dragons that he gives up his life and his country to stop it. Sure, it's sneaky and backhanded to spread disease, but I'm sure decimating the French population of dragons will save thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of British lives, as well as British dragons. Although I appreciate the Geneva convention and any kind of kindness and humanity given to the other side during a war, it's always somewhat absurd to distinguish between different kinds of killing. So, it's okay to persuade dragons, who have no political interests, to tear eachother apart in mid-air, but the worst thing you could ever do is allow a disease to spread among them? And if what Britain did was so bad, there is no reason for Lawrence to give up his life. If he is so honorable and attached to England that he would voluntarily go back to be hanged, then he wouldn't have committed treason in the first place. But that's just my opinion.

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