Review of BLACK POWDER WAR by NAOMI NOVIK
(third in the TEMERAIRE series)
The short review of this is simple: if you liked the first book you'll like the latter ones and if you didn't you won't. In some ways, it's all same old same old, but for those enjoying the content that's a virtue not a flaw.
The end of THRONE OF JADE left Laurence and Temeraire ready to leave China. BLACK POWDER WAR swerves away from any likely predictions with a surprise mission for our beloved duo. From there, nothing goes as planned and everything becomes far more complicated than it originally sounded...and some things sounded plenty complicated already.
I had no trouble getting back into this world, because I adore the characters. There's a huge cast, but Laurence and Temeraire remain the stars and ever worthy of my loyalty. Temeraire is perhaps the most charming dragon I've encountered. I'm immeasurably jealous of his knack for picking up new languages. (I comfort myself with the fact that he's fictional.) Despite his intelligence, though, he often misses human social cues, a trend that provides plenty of entertainment. Laurence lives by a strong sense of ethics and concepts such as honor, duty, and courtesy practically become characters in their own right in this series. In fact, Laurence has such a steadfast sense of honor that he passes over a huge potential victory in BLACK POWDER WAR because it clashes with his understanding of right and wrong. I'm avoiding spoilers, but I felt thoroughly involved in the story at that point. I related to Lawrence and wanted to argue with him at the same time. His decision actually makes a great ethical conundrum perfect for posing to a group for discussion.
After seeing how dragons in China live differently than those in Britain, Temeraire wants better treatment for his peers back in Europe. This turns into an overarching plot line through the series and has become a source of friction between Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence understands Temeraire's desires, but worries the dragon doesn't realize how much effort, time, and resources some of his desires would require. More importantly, though, Laurence's sense of honor tells him it's disloyal to demand more from your country when you're in the middle of a terrible war and his sense of logic that overcoming any kind of prejudice takes far longer than Temeraire's willing to wait.
In some ways each book in this series feels like only a chapter, but I had trouble articulating why in my review of THRONE OF JADE. Now I realize it's because the series has such a wide story arch. So many plot lines stretch across numerous books rather than within one. Laurence and Temeraire's debate over dragon rights, for example, doesn't make that much progress within BLACK POWDER WAR. They discuss their opinions near the start of the book, then find themselves quite...preoccupied, and then continue the discussion near the end, but they're far from any definitive course of action. I hope we do see them strive for change, but I expect that might not happen for a few more books.
There's far more warfare in this third book than the earlier two. Unfortunately for Laurence and Temeraire, they often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, always in the middle of disputes. Not so bad if they can play the neutral party, but more often than not both sides wind up their enemy, or at least not particularly friendly or helpful.
This series continues to surprise me with how invested I am. At pivotal emotional moments, I’m startled by how much I feel every twist. I can’t help wanting Novik to go easy on Laurence and Temeraire, because I love them so much!