Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik [Library of Babel]

Tongues of Serpents is the nth book in the Temeraire series started with His Majesty's Dragon (in the US, anyway), and another "Meh" review from me. In this case, this is probably less to do with the book itself than with the fact that I am not really in the target demographic for this book.

The series, for those who aren't familiar with it is basically Patrick O'Brian crossed with Pern: our chief protagonist is William Laurence, a sailor in the Biritsh Navy in the Napoleonic Wars who captures a dragon's egg, and inadvertently becomes the human captain of Temeraire, a Chinese Celestial dragon. Dragons are common in this world, and Laurence is shifted from the Navy to the Aerial Corps of the military, and adventures ensue that involve Laurence and Temeraire traveling all over the world.

At the end of the last installment, Laurence and Temeraire were sentenced to be transported to Australia, and this book opens soon after they arrive in the squalid colonial port of Sydney. The colonists have recently overthrown the appointed Governor, William Bligh-- yes, that Captain Bligh. Laurence and Temeraire find themselves unavoidably engaged in colonial politics, and then sent off to explore an exotic new continent, with new and deadly wildlife.

This is pretty similar to the book before the last one, where they spent a bunch of time poking around Africa. It fails for me for much the same reasons that the Africa volume did. Though, really, the remarkable thing is not that these later books don't work for me, but that the earlier ones did.

The whole concept of the series starts with two strikes, for me: it's about Regency England, which has basically no intrinsic appeal for me, and it's an alternate history with frequent appearances by real-world historical figures who are in basically the same roles that they had in real history. These are big positive factors for a lot of people who aren't me-- Regency novels are a major category of historical fiction, and alternate history is huge these days-- but they're mild negative factors for me.

The first couple of Temeraire books succeeded in spite of this, because they're fast-moving and full of action. When they started to slow down, though, those negative factors come into play in a big way, and ruin the whole thing. When the pace is slower, I can't avoid thinking about the setting, and when I start to think about the setting, it doesn't make a lick of sense. The central premise requires every major world culture to have domesticated dragons, and yet every major historical event up to the start of the Napoleonic Wars has fallen out in exactly the same way, so that all of the same people are in the same positions that they were in real history, which is completely nonsensical.

As I said, when the books moved fast, I could skip lightly over this problem for the sake of the airborne dragon combat and so on, but this book starts off sloooooowly. Even more annoyingly, it's slow because it's angsty-- Laurence is all mopey about the fact that he's been convicted of treason and transported, and is despised and looked down upon by everyone in good standing with the Government. He spends 50+ pages moping about Sydney being passive and whiny before anything happens, which is 50 more pages of that than I wanted to read. Even once they get going on exploring Australia, he's just a depressive lump for the bulk of the book, moaning about slights to his honor, but not doing anything about it.

It doesn't help that the previous fantasy book I finished was Ian Esslemont's The Return of the Crimson Guard, in the Malazan Empire universe, which is pretty much the antithesis of this. I realize that the fretting about status and formality and all that is part of the charm of the Regency setting for people who like that sort of thing, but it leaves me wishing for less propriety and more wisecracking sappers blowing shit up.

All in all, it left me dissatisfied, but primarily for reasons that wouldn't translate to anyone who liked the earlier books. There are a few hiccups outside the setting-- the subplot involving the stunted egg is a little too obvious and the non-aviator characters are completely flat-- but I suspect my annoyance at those things is magnified by the fact that it's very carefully aimed at an audience of people who aren't me.

Kate enjoyed this considerably more than I did, and will have a review of it soonish. If you liked the last couple, that review will be more useful to you than anything I can say about it. This post is mostly just venting.

More like this

Meh. and Ugh. A friend gifted me a box set a while ago. I actually like historical fiction, don't mind Regency at all.

However, I found the settings dull, the characters two dimensional and the story telling contrived. These books read as though they were written by a talented fan fiction writer in her teens or early 20's; someone not mature enough to understand her own psychology, let alone understand how to portray the mind of her characters.

My 9yo and I listened to the first one and really enjoyed it. This kiddo loves it when authors stick real events or people into fiction (as long as the authors are at least reasonably careful in their research) and as he'd just been learning about the Napoleonic wars this was a double bonus.

I took the next two books out of the library and neither one of us could finish either book. I apreciated her feel for the Otooman empire but the were just to flat to finish.

So maybe it was the novelty that appealled, maybe the narrator was particularly good (this kiddo was a late reader so we got into the habit of listening to books. Now we're hooked.)