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Tongues Of Serpents by Naomi Novik

01/11/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy Tongues Of Serpents in the USA - or Buy Tongues Of Serpents in the UK

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pub: Del Rey/Ballantine. Temeraire book 6. 274 page hardback. Price: $25.00 (US), $29.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-49689-8.

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We have all heard of the stories of books being turned down because basic things like punctuation and layout have affronted the editor before they have even read the covering letter. Equally, there are the tales of the brilliant writers who have to have their spelling and grammar corrected in great detail before the book can face the next step towards publication. There can be few who have not heard of the greengrocer’s apostrophe or the book, ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by Lynn Truss that it provoked. Then there are books where the author has deliberately taken an eccentric approach to punctuation, such as e.e.cummings who never uses capital letters. The worst sinners, though, are the proof-readers who allow all kinds of evils to be perpetrated before the book goes to print. Is it because they are ignorant? If so, why? Surely it should be a prerequisite for the job of editor or proof-reader to have a solid grounding in spelling, punctuation and grammar. Is it the education system at fault? I suspect that this is one element. Fifty years ago, the English taught in schools contained all of these. To pass an ‘O’ level in English meant mastery of all facets of the language. Then came a period when it was thought detrimental to the child to criticise so faults were left uncorrected. We are reaping the problems this has caused.

Although this was the situation in Britain, I suspect other developed countries encountered the same issues. Fortunately, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way, at least in schools. There is room for the eccentric writer, but as any creative writing teacher will say, if you know the rules, then you can break them. There is a problem with those who think they know the rules, but were actually half-asleep when they were explained. Other than the apostrophe, the punctuation that is most abused seems to be the colon and semi-colon. As most people do not know how to use them, the best idea is to avoid them and use something else. Unfortunately, Naomi Novik has fallen in love with them. They do not add to the prose, in fact they often complicate an already badly written sentence. Normally, I would not bother to quote from a novel but on page 95, a sentence, actually a whole paragraph, reads:-

Laurence had rarely seen Temeraire so roused, or Iskierka: a threat to himself or Granby offered the nearest comparison, and Laurence thought this might exceed even that passion: the greatest effort was visibly required to restrain them from immediate action, however purposeless; and Iskierka had already burnt up three trees by way of venting her feelings.

The next paragraph puts semicolons in speech. Only lecturers and bores speak in semi-colons.

The presence of this kind of over-the-top misuse of punctuation destroys any pleasure that should be had from the reading. If this was an isolated incident, it can be forgiven but it occurs in all her books and appear to be getting worse or, at least, more noticeable. For those curious or unfamiliar with Novik’s books, Temeraire is a huge Chinese celestial dragon the size of a small ship and Iskierka is a Turkish fire-breathing dragon. Both are part of the British Aerial Corps which is desperately trying to keep Napoleon’s French dragons from English shores. Laurence and Granby are their human captains and soul-mates.

In this series so far, Laurence and Temeraire have visited China, found dragon-led civilisations in Africa, flown the length of Europe and repulsed Napoleon’s invasion of Britain. Now, because Laurence gave the cure for a fatal disease of dragons to the French, they have been transported to Australia for treason. As in previous novels, there is a basis in historical fact in that they arrive after the Governor, Bligh of the Bounty fame, has been sent packing by the new Australians. They arrive on a transport ship along with Iskierka, the fire-breathing dragon as escort with three eggs in the hope of establishing a covert on a largely unexplored continent with no known indigenous dragons. When one of the eggs is stolen, we are treated with a flight north-west across Australia after the thieves. They encounter a few problems, like bush fires and bunyips but it is only when they arrive on the northern coast that the action after two hundred pages really begins to be stepped up.

The author’s note at the end of the volume refers to ‘the colourful character of Sir Willoughby’. Perhaps he is/was, but he appears less than fifty pages from the end, making him a minor player in the plot.

Compared with earlier volumes in this series, this is relatively slight. Australia as a penal colony has been written about in much more exciting ways by mainstream authors and the addition of dragons adds little as this is basically a book about the continent rather than the characters. To see Australia in perspective, try the works of Peter Carey, a far, far better writer.

It doesn’t help neither, that Novik’s dragons and some of her plotlines have features in common with McCaffreys’ (Anne and Todd) stories of Pern, the most recent ones of which also deal with the consequences of dragons dying of a disease. The resolution in each case is different though.

As yet, Novik has not taken Temeraire to the Americas. I am sure she will, but she would do better to get him and his crew back in to the fray in Europe, fighting the French. The series was originally conceived as an aerial navy, with dragons taking the place of frigates and ships of the line with the attendant danger and real threat of death. Perhaps it is time for this series to get back to those roots and inject more action and tension to the storylines.

Pauline Morgan

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