This is book four of Novik’s brilliant series featuring intelligent battling dragons during the Napoleonic wars. Britain is in an extremely bad situation, as a flu-like epidemic is slowly but surely killing all their dragons – the entire Aerial Corps – and it is only a matter of time before Napoleon’s dragons take advantage and Britain is lost. The title dragon, Temeraire, and his captain, Will Laurence, can only watch in horror as many captain-dragon relationships go through torment and grief all around them.
When it becomes clear that they stumbled across a cure during their overland journey from China to Istanbul, they set off at once to Africa to find out exactly what it is that could save Britain’s dragon population before the secret is out and Britain is destroyed.
Africa, however, has problems of its own. Many have tried to explore the dark interior, and none have returned. On a mission to retrieve an unusual and specific foodstuff, Laurence and the other humans are captured and it soon becomes clear that the so-called feral dragons of the interior are not feral at all. They are part of an organised and intelligent force that has had enough of the British Empire, and plans to take back their slaves – and they’re perfectly happy to destroy the British Empire to do so.
Laurence himself is against slavery, but he also knows that the African force cannot be appeased – too many of their friends and relatives have long since been killed by sea voyages and mistreatment. There is no solution here.
This book ends on a moral climax, when Laurence’s honour is put to the greatest test ever.
Even Laurence finds it hard to be sympathetic to the British in this book, and the readers feel the embarrassed defensiveness with him. As readers, we are kept involved by the humans and dragons involved – the larger struggle is not so gripping.
I didn’t mention earlier, but Novik deserves credit for planning – small incidents from previous books turn out to be vital later on. And of course the characters never cease to involve the reader.
From here on, the books end in ways that would be unsatisfying to some readers. The main action is certainly complete, but the consequences (almost inevitably negative) for Laurence and Temeraire are left looming.
Rating: PG battle violence
Free sample (dragons as a whole REALLY like shiny things, and Iskierka is a somewhat immature fire-breather. In the military, you are financially rewarded for taking enemy ships):
Iskierka meanwhile took inspiration, and began to plot the acquisition of capital. “If I burn up a ship, is that good enough, or must I bring it back?” she demanded, and began her piratical career by presenting [her captain] with a small fishing-boat, the next morning, which she had picked up from Dover harbor during the night. “Well, you did not say it must be a FRENCH ship,” she said crossly, to their recriminations, and curled up to sulk.