Empire of Ivory

by Naomi Novik

Cover image

Series: Temeraire #4
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2007
ISBN: 0-345-49687-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 404

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This is the fourth book of the Temeraire series, the first after the original near-simultaneous three-book publication ending in Black Powder War, and builds heavily on the previous volumes. There's little point in jumping into the middle of the series.

Temeraire has finally and inevitably made it home, for the first time since the second book, and is full of plans from his world travels. However, he and Laurence are immediately beset by the next crisis: a contagious disease of dragons that seems likely to kill nearly every dragon in England. After some initial angst and drama, particularly when it looks like Temeraire has been infected, it's off to Africa to look for a cure.

I'm compressing quite a bit, as unfortunately this plot develops at a glacial pace amidst a variety of faffing about ineffectually trying to improve the treatment of dragons in England. On one hand, returning to the same environment from the first book but with new eyes underscores how different (and better) treatment of dragons in the rest of the world is. On the other hand, given that nothing is done about it, it all ends up being rather depressing and frustrating. A plague also isn't the most dynamic of enemies, and the start of this book feels rather miserable.

The journey to Africa improves the oppressiveness of the environment, but doesn't help much with the pace. Large sections of this book were simply boring. We see European colonies and their abusive relationship with the natives, more of Laurence hating slavery but not feeling like there's anything concrete he can do about it (which is getting a bit old), and a lot of thrashing about to try to find a cure. Most of the first 250 pages or so is made up of small events that do slowly advance the plot, but which I had a hard time caring about or becoming engrossed in for their own merits.

Finally, around page 250, the plot kicks into gear, Novik opens up her Africa world-building, and new players enter the story (to the surprise of no one who read the title). This was something of an improvement, but it still didn't quite work for me. Partly, this is because Temeraire is absent when things start moving, and Temeraire is the only character in this series I care about (more on that in a bit). Partly, it's because Novik fails to establish any sympathetic character on the other side — one hazard of the exclusive use of Laurence as a viewpoint character — and I never felt any emotional attachment to the lavish descriptions of their culture and architecture. The idea was great, and intellectually I like the idea of building a society with more integrated use of dragons than the European short-sighted focus on war. (Although it does simultaneously poke some holes in the credibility of Novik's world-building elsewhere. Presumably Europe has had dragons just as far into its past, and yet there's no sign of any similar use.) The execution, though, failed to grab me.

It's only with the return of Temeraire, the journey back to England, and the dramatic reversals of the final pages that Empire of Ivory reached the level of excitement and interest of the previous books. Admittedly, it does that and more; the last fifty pages is some of the best and most emotionally charged writing of the entire series to date. But one has to wait the whole book for it, and then is handed a cliff-hanger ending for one's trouble.

This series is starting to lose my interest, largely because I no longer respect Laurence. Temeraire is the highlight of the series, as he has been since the beginning, but he needs a supporting cast that I care about. Most of the other characters are bit players at best, often interchangable, which sadly includes the other dragons. Laurence is the only other character who rises to protagonist role. But Laurence is stuck as representative of the best parts of the English military service, and it's becoming increasingly clear that England is, by the standards that the series is highlighting, essentially the villains. English behavior towards slavery, dragons, methods of warfare, colonies, and women is almost uniformly despicable; Temeraire (and the reader) sees this clearly and sees better treatment in nearly every other locale they visit; and Laurence is constantly put in the untenable position of defending the actions of his country.

This might still work if Laurence showed some signs of recognizing this, but his loyalty to England appears entirely beyond question. The most he can manage is disagreement with particular politicians or decisions and angst over what England does, but he can't seem to look past that and realize that England may deserve to lose the war, or that it may not deserve his loyalty. In previous books, this is rarely more than annoying. In Empire of Ivory, it becomes actively frustrating. So much of the emotional strength of the book is based on Laurence and Temeraire's relationship; when I find myself wishing Temeraire would dump Laurence somewhere and find a captain who will open his eyes, it badly undermines the story.

I'm not sure this one's worth it. It feels flabby and the number of characters I care about is diminishing. I'm probably stuck reading the sequel at this point, given the unsatisfying cliff-hanger ending, but others may want to stop at Black Powder War. There's good stuff here still, and I did love the ending, but the trend is not in a good direction.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-12-15

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21