01/04/2009. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 388 paperback. Price: $ 7.99 (US), $10.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-49687-4.
check out website: www.delreydigital.com
In the early nineteenth century, most people were still unable to read. Reading a map was an even more unlikely skill. For map-makers themselves, there were still large areas where they could legitimately put 'Here Be Dragons', especially in the centres of the larger continents. In Naomi Novik's alternative history, everywhere could be labelled this way as this is a world where dragons exist.
The beasts are highly intelligent and huge. The dragons are the ships of the air, almost literally. The setting for this series of novels is the period of the Napoleonic wars (late 18th - early 19th century). The British and the French face each other across the channel. Napoleon's invasion fleet is not just ships, but dragons.
History up to this point in time has followed the same path as in conventional history books and it is only now that the dragons seem to be making a difference. One wonders, though, why warships have become necessary when the dragons seem to be able to perform most of the same functions. They can carry men on harnesses attached to their bodies, goods in large nets either strapped on or in their claws and they have built-in weapons. The only disadvantage seems to be feeding them as they eat vast quantities of meat.
However, this series properly begins, in 'His Majesty's Dragon', when a British ship intercepts a French one bearing an egg which hatches and the hatchling decides that the ship's captain is going to be his captain. This dragon, Temeraire, turns out to be a rare Emperor Dragon from China.
This volume, 'Empire Of Ivory', is the fourth in the series and begins as Temeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, crew and an entourage of young dragons are returning from China. When they arrive, they discover that there is a serious situation. The British dragons have gone down with an infection which has weakened the coastal defences. Without a cure, the beasts are likely to die, at which point, Napoleon's forces will invade and over-run the country. By deduction, it is decided that the cure is probably a fungus that Temeraire encountered during his passage to China and which grows inn Africa.
With nothing to lose, the flight takes off in search of it. Though they find the fungus, they discover that they are actually stealing someone else's crop. Laurence is captured by African dragons and taken away to their city in the heart of the African continent. Here dragons keep humans as slaves. It is up to Temeraire and his friends to rescue their humans and somehow get the cure back to England before the British dragons die from the infection.
As this series continues, the dragons are increasingly asserting their own personalities and independence. Perhaps by the end of it we can dispense with the humans entirely and concentrate on dragon interactions and politics.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA