Tongues of Serpents
by Naomi Novik
Cover Artist: Dominic Harman
Review by Paul Haggerty
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345496898
Date: 13 July 2010 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Capt. Will Laurence, formerly a hero of the British Aerial Corps, is now a convicted traitor. Spared from execution for his service in saving the British Empire from Napoleon's invasion, he and his dragon, Temeraire have instead been sentenced to transportation and a life of hard labor in the Australian penal colony. But try explaining that to a multi-ton dragon that can shatter solid rock with a single roar, and has a simple philosophy that doing the right thing is always the right thing ... regardless of what your so-called superiors might think. Dispatched to Australia they may have been, but Temeraire sees no reason why they should continue to be punished. There's a continent to unlock, secrets to discover, and enemies both foreign and domestic that are unwilling to blindly accept British domination of an entire continent. What's a dragon to do first?
Temeraire sees things much more logically than the bureaucrats of London. He and Laurence were sentenced to "transportation". They've been "transported". As far as he's concerned, the punishment is over and they ought to be able to go home now. If Laurence says they can't, he'll begrudgingly accept it, but anyone that suggests they spend the rest of their lives breaking rocks is going to get such a glare. Fortunately, the people in charge of New South Wales have a better use for a Chinese Imperial dragon and his famous rider. Captain Bligh, of HMS Bounty fame, was the governor of the colony until he was mutinied against ... again. Now Bligh wants to use Temeraire to get his position back. And the usurpers want to use him to make sure Bligh doesn't succeed. Under these circumstances, going into the unexplored and highly lethal interior seems like a pretty good idea.
Wherever Laurence and Temeraire go, politics and intrigue are difficult to leave behind. In addition to the prisoners, three dragon eggs were also sent down under in an attempt to form a dragon covert there as well. When one of the eggs is stolen, Temeraire, Laurence, a handful of British officers and allied dragons, and a crew of convicts are forced to give up their survey mission and race across the heart of the continent in pursuit.
Temeraire and Laurence have crossed Asia and Africa, and have a good idea of what strange things lurk in the unmapped parts of the world. But Australia is not so much strange as it is alien. The people and creatures of the outback have a very different way of life, and even a powerful dragon will find himself over matched in a land which does not tolerate weakness or impetuosity. And even at the end of the chase, when things should go back to some semblance of normalcy, Temeraire and Laurence are forced to once again fight the forces of pigheaded bureaucrats who demand that the world conform to their political briefings, and military officers who "have their orders", all in an effort to protect an Empire they've already saved multiple times, and been convicted for it, from its own stupidity.
The Temeraire novels are part adventure story, part travelogue, and part sociological study of the human race. Laurence is a man of his times, but his association with Temeraire has forced him to rethink and question things which he'd always accepted without any thought at all. Temeraire, being highly intelligent, but non-human, tries to study Laurence's people in a futile attempt to figure out the logic behind their actions. It's in this study that Novik can shine a light on human behavior and force you to take a look at our actions from a different point of view.
And when Temeraire isn't dealing with the twin idiocies that are rank and station, he's focusing our attention on alien landscapes and alien creatures. Novik's world is, in many ways, similar to our Napoleonic age, but the differences aren't just limited to dragons. Other creatures roam the Earth and swim in the seas. And the addition of these creatures have changed how societies across the globe have developed and in their interactions with one another. And its in this juxtaposition of the known and the unknown that the action takes place.
Temeraire can be an arrogant being. He's powerful and smart, and he sometimes gets the delusion that this makes him unbeatable. The world is slowly beating some sense into him as we follow along from book to book, but there's plenty of room for more lessons and more books. And so far, Temeraire and Laurence have gone from the height of Heroes of the Realm to depths of Traitors to the Crown. I will be interested in seeing where Novik plans to send them next.