Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
Throne of Jade is the sequel to a book I read last summer, His Majesty's Dragon. The series is set during the Napoleonic wars, but with a twist: instead of a world in which dragons don't exist, these books take place in a world in which dragons do exist, are used as an air force, and are intelligent creatures. In particular we follow the adventures of Temeraire and his companion, Laurence. Throne of Jade picks up where His Majesty's Dragon left off; at the end of the first book, we learn that Temeraire is, in fact, a very rare and powerful dragon and his egg had been sent as a gift from the Emperor of China to Napoleon himself when Laurence (who had previously been the captain of a ship in the English Navy) captured it. Predictably, the Chinese are pissed and demand Temeraire be returned to China. Thus, this installment tells the story of Laurence and Temeraire's trip to China and Laurence's efforts to prevent his separation from the dragon.
The two things I liked most about His Majesty's Dragon were the action and the interactions between Laurence and Temeraire. Unfortunately, Throne of Jade was much lighter on both. Temeraire is an endearing character because of his innocence and his loyalty. He seem almost childlike, which can be very amusing, and his devotion to Laurence (and Laurence's devotion to Temeraire) make both characters more likable. But Throne of Jade focuses much more on the diplomacy and the Brits' attempts to persuade the Chinese to let Temeraire return to England. In the end, it was still enjoyable, but not quite as good as the first (though it finished strong).
There were a few other holes in the book that warrant mentioning. In England, dragons are treated almost like horses or dogs: their human companions are completely devoted to them, but they are used as tools of war and are not given nearly the same rights or freedoms as humans. In China, however, dragons are revered and are allowed to move freely through the cities and provide for themselves. Novik highlights this distinction when the transport carrying Temeraire and Laurence to China stops at a slave trading port and Temeraire begins to question the nature of human-dragon relations in England. However, instead of delving deeply into the subject, Novik just kind of puts it aside and returns to the plot of the story. On one hand, I thought that was kind of cheating, that she shouldn't bring it up if she's not going to tackle it (in all fairness, there was a little bit of foreshadowing that the topic will be addressed in the third book), but on the other I kind of wish she hadn't brought it up in the first place. It's not a requirement of actual social responsibility to call attention to the way dragons are treated in England because, you know, dragons don't actually exist (and I can't think of a situation that this was intended to be a metaphor for, unless Novik was just throwing it out there that slavery is bad) and it just kind of tainted what should be a light, enjoyable, action packed story. If I were looking for hard philosophical questions, a series of books about dragons in the Napoleonic wars is not where I would turn. Also, Novik is kind of racially and culturally insensitive. At one point she refers to a Chinese person as a "chinaman" (in a narrative description, not as a reflection of how the characters would speak at the time). Also, she says Temeraire's secret weapon is known as "the divine wind" by the Chinese, which I thought was interesting (seeing as how the word kamikaze means "divine wind" in Japanese). Maybe she was trying to be clever and missed or maybe she just didn't know the difference, but it seemed a little wonky to me.
Sorry for getting into a rant at the end; I actually did enjoy this book, even if not as much as the first one. Still up in the air whether I'll continue with the series. It'll depend on if I run out of things to read/how cheap the next one is on kindle.