Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tongues of Serpents, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the sixth book in the Temeraire series, Tongues of Serpents. I'll say from the start that this book seem to mostly be more of the same in the previous five books, but with a change in setting. In this case our characters are in distant Australia, after Laurence's sentence for treason against the United Kingdom was commuted from execution to life transportation to Botany Bay. Laurence hopes to spend at least some time living with Temeraire in obscurity, but a rebellion in Australia deposed the local governor, the infamous Captain Bligh (events which actually happened, by the way, so that's neat). Laurence is once again placed into an awkward situation because of Temeraire. Bligh is eager to offer Laurence a pardon in exchange for his help to reestablish Bligh as governor. The leaders of the rebellion, by contrast, are willing to offer Laurence material benefits such as land and influence within the colony for his help to secure their control of the colony.

Faced with an unpalatable choice, Laurence takes a third option offered by one of the rebel leaders. Laurence, Temeraire, and the rest of the dragons will take a band of convicts to build a cattle road into the mountains surrounding Sydney and help expand the colony into Australia's interior. Tharkay has also been charged with the East India Company with discovering the source of the many smuggled Chinese goods found in Sydney, and he believes that the smugglers are sending the goods overland. Discovery of porcelain in the Australian interior confirms this hypothesis, and soon Laurence, Temeraire, and company are racing across the Outback.

In some ways this feels a lot like parts of Blackpowder War because of the vast sections of travelling, but instead of following the Silk Road from China to Istanbul, our characters are crossing all of Australia from south to north. The result can be a little tedious because they're basically flying through an enormous desert, although some of the challenges they encounter are interesting. But I think the parts towards the beginning and and end of the book are the most worthwhile.

This isn't to say that there aren't redeeming parts to this book. I think my favorite thing out of this book was the dragon Kulingile. When he first hatches he's so malformed that most of the experienced aeronauts don't expect Kulingile to live and want to mercy-kill him. However Demane, one of the African boys who joined Laurence's entourage, adopts Kulingile and much to everyone's surprise it turns out that Kulingile will not only live, but will grow to be larger than even a Regal Copper, probably reaching some twenty-four tons. Despite all this, Kulingile is such a kind character that I ended up cheering for him, especially when he ends up becoming a balloon dragon. So I'm looking forward to more of him in the last few books.

I also liked the development of the trade network between native Australians, Pacific Islanders, and the Chinese which use dragons as a means of transportation. Granted I'm a sucker for stories about transportation so seeing a trade network develop is fun for me, but maybe not as much fun for other people.

Overall I thought this book was fine, if mostly more of the same. But I'm finding I say that about a lot of this series. I don't know if there's anything specific in any of the books that stand out and make it seem like a fantastic series to me, but it's still a good series. Novik is an incredibly competent writer and her books in the series have always been enjoyable and very easy to read or listen to. They're solid mid-grade fiction worth your time if it piques your interest.

- Kalpar 

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