Black Powder War

by Naomi Novik

Cover image

Series: Temeraire #3
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2006
ISBN: 0-345-48130-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 365

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This is the third book of the Temeraire series, which now looks like it will go on for a while. It has, at this point, built up a recurring villain and an established cast, and reading this book prior to the previous two (particularly Throne of Jade) isn't recommended.

Starting in China after the events of the previous book, Laurence, Temeraire, and their crew are preparing to head back to England and the war. This gains new urgency when they're ordered to Istanbul on the way to pick up three purchased dragon eggs. Various circumstances force an overland journey, feral dragons and a new Chinese arch-enemy enter the picture, and there is betrayal, intrigue, and high adventure in Istanbul before Temeraire returns to Europe and is caught in the heart of the land war with Napoleon.

Novik remedies one of my two major complaints in this installment. The characterization doesn't get much deeper and everyone still feels shallower than in His Majesty's Dragon, but at least now we get a heavy dollop of plot. I came away from Black Powder War feeling like things happened and the world changed. There's quite a bit more action and suspense, and story elements such as the feral dragons are woven into the plot rather than dropped in as random encounters. I doubt there's much here that's realistic in detail, but the war feels generally plausible and I like how Novik integrates dragons into battlefield tactics.

Temeraire's feelings about dragon slavery and his plans to improve their lot in England has the most potential for bringing character depth to the story, but it's still left unexplored here. The plot leaves little time for it, so the characters repeatedly talk about it but nothing substantial changes from Throne of Jade. Several other guns on the mantle from the first book (the role of women in the British service, for instance) are also left there, and the series seems to be settling in for the long haul. I was disappointed; I was hoping for a trilogy with an end, although I should have guessed that wasn't coming from the leisurely plot pace of Throne of Jade. If more of these plot elements were in play and the characters had more to react to that forced emotional reaction and growth, this series would be more compelling; as is, the background continues to be the strongest appeal, and it's basically more of what we've already seen.

The best touch of this book is the guide, Tharkay, who's untrustworthy, mysterious, and competent through the book, even for reasons that aren't completely obvious and which tie into one of the general problems of the series. Laurence does better with someone he has to react to and fit into his world view. Sadly, he's the only significant new character (other than a new dragon who is setup for the next book), and with little character growth, the series feels stagnated on that front.

Black Powder War is light action adventure with dragons, fast-paced and with enough happening to keep the pages turning. It still fails to live up to the potential of the first book of the series, and unfortunately this series doesn't look like the place to turn for much depth or self-contained books. For light adventure, though, it's not bad, and it's a step up from the previous book. Keep this one in mind for sickbed reading or as a palette cleanser between stronger works.

Followed by Empire of Ivory.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-07-09

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21