(Contains slight spoilers for Empire of Ivory)
Victory of Eagles is the fifth instalment in Naomi Novik‘s TEMERAIRE series. I thought the previous four books had ups and downs but in general they are fun, fast reads. The fourth book, Empire of Ivory, had a very promising end, so I was rather looking forward to reading this. I guess Victory of Eagles mirrors the series as a whole in that it has its ups and downs but is generally enjoyable.
After Laurence’s decision to deliver the cure for the dragon disease that struck Britain in Empire of Ivory to the French, thereby undoing a deliberate attempt by the British to infect the French dragons, he is put on trial and condemned to a traitor’s death. The British are very pragmatic about the matter though. With Napoleon clearly preparing a second attempt at invasion, Temeraire cannot be spared from combat duties. Laurence is put away to ensure his good behavior, while Temeraire spends his time at a breeding ground in Wales waiting for something to happen. The treatment of the dragons there are a constant source of annoyance to him and he tries to convince the dragons they should not accept such treatment. This does not appear to make much of an impact.
The ship Laurence is kept prisoner on happens to be in the wrong spot when the French decide to invade. He gets involved in the battle. When the dust settles and the magnitude of the disaster becomes clear to the British, he is sent to Wales to fetch Temeraire and return to active duty. This turns out to be a bit of a problem. Tired of sitting and waiting while the French invade, Temeraire has decided to take action and leave the breeding grounds. When Laurence arrives and finds him gone a difficult search for Temeraire begins.
By the end of Empire of Ivory there had been quite a bit of divergence from history as we know it. There is very little recognizable history left for someone with my limited knowledge. The mental state of King George III is mentioned. The raid on Denmark in 1807, which in Novik’s time line is led by Nelson, also plays a small role by providing an opening for the French to break the naval blockade. The invasion is entirely fictional of course but it is met by one of the most famous historical figures in the book is General Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington. In our version of history he rose to prominence in the Peninsula War and did not become a Duke until 1814. Novik moves his rise forward a few years. By the end of Empire of Ivory I had more or less expected Novik to let go of historical events entirely but some links obviously remain.
With all that military action going on in Victory of Eagles and with the main characters right in the middle of it, one would expect this novel to be heavy on battle scenes. And indeed two major battles are described, both of which Temeraire is very much involved in. Between those two events a surprising amount of the book is dedicated to logistics and skirmishes. With the inclusion of dragons, foraging and logistics differ quite a bit from what an ordinary army would need. Although the way the British finally manage to lure Napoleon into battle at their terms is quite ingenious, the middle part of the book was not all that interesting. My attention flagged on several occasions.
Part of the cause is probably the very dark mood that permeates the entire novel. Laurence is literally waiting to be hanged so he can be done with it. He is doing his duty, as he sees, it but he is not happy about his orders and burdened by guilt about the people who have been affected by his treason. In effect it makes him a very passive character for most of the book and at times the do-your-worst-you-can’t-kill-me-twice attitude annoyed me tremendously. Temeraire still does not seem to have understood the profound social impact of Laurence’s treason. He is quite puzzled as to why Laurence would agree to be hanged in the first place. After four books the gap in understanding between them seems to be widening.
With Laurence not actively interfering for a change, Temeraire is full of initiative. He means to push his dragon emancipation agenda forward in full force now that the British need their full support. His manoeuvring is rather clumsy; Temeraire might possess a powerful brain but he is young and inexperienced. Much of his negotiations are nothing short of blackmail. Although I can see why, after putting his ambitions aside for more pressing concerns for so long, Temeraire is eager to proceed but the lack of guidance by Laurence is telling. In previous books, Throne of Jade in particular, the interaction between Laurence and Temeraire is one of the strong points of the book. Laurence’s attitude in Victory of Eagles changes that. It’s like he is giving up on guiding the dragon altogether. He seems to think it is out of his hand. This air of defeat that can be found in much of the novel didn’t suit his character at all.
I must admit the big battle at the end makes up for the part of the book that failed to hold my attention. It’s probably the strongest finale Novik has written yet. It’s not quite enough to make Victory of Eagles into a good read, though. I guess it’s a case of too little, too late. I also suspect Novik managed to get herself in trouble for the next book by forcing her characters away from the main action again but we’ll see about that when I read Tongues of Serpents. I guess you could say this book is neither the best nor the worst in the series. It’s enjoyable and delivers what the readers have grown to expect, but I didn’t think it was surprising or outstanding in any way.
Temeraire — (2006-2016) Peter Jackson has “optioned” the Temeraire story. Omnibus editions are available. Publisher: Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies… not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future–and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.