Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

Rating 8.3/10
If you have not yet started the Temeraire series, I recommend you do so.

The following is a review of both Victory of Eagles and Tongue of Serpents (books 5 and 6 in the Temeraire series).

Several years ago I began Naomi Novik's Temeraire series and enjoyed it quite a bit. I set it aside for one reason or another and recently came back to it. A 9 book series (book 8 comes out this August) covering the exploits of Captain William Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, the series is an alternate history set in the early 1800's and imagines the time of the Napoleonic Wars if dragons had been around and used in the war. The dragons themselves are sentient beings with personalities of their own and much of the "B" story of the series mirrors the women's suffragette movement as dragons, led by Temeraire, try to get the right and standings enjoyed by men. The main story focuses on the development of the bind between Will and Temeraire, their rise through the ranks of the Aerial Corps, both of their development of conscious and character, as well as the ongoing invasion by Napoleon of Britain.

Being a 9 book series, there are a large cast of recurring characters, both human and dragon, and overlapping story lines. Novik excels at the mundane and everyday - which is what I like best about the story. While set in a time of war, there was relatively little fighting between battles and the backbone of any fight was really about supply lines, securing and protecting resources, etc. Novik spends a good amount of time on all of these, leading to a historical nonfiction feel to her books. Military tactics and battles are planned and presented in the same way, making the action believable and feel authentic. At the heart of her writing, however, are the relationships between the dragons and their captains and crews. Each dragon has its own personality, temperament and motivations. The same is true of their captains. And the captains to one another, as well as the dragons to one another. She presents the aviators as a class apart from the rest of society, thereby secluding them and making them our window into the era.

Through various missions and machinations Will and Temeraire travel throughout Europe, to South America, China and Australia and each society and area has not only its own types of dragons, but their own culture around them. In some societies (China) the dragons are revered, learn and teach each other and humans, and are part of the larger society with all of the rights and responsibilities afforded. In most parts of Europe dragons are seen as dumb beasts of burden (at the beginning of the novels) and are sequestered from "polite" society.

Temeraire's quest to gain rights and recognition for dragons starts slowly and builds over the course of the series. His exposure to dragons around the world influences him and his desire to find a place for himself and his fellow dragons. Laurence, himself from a well-to-do family, has been rejected by his father because he left the service of the navy (a respectable profession) for the service of Temeraire and the aviators (a working class profession). Much of his story is about him finding himself inside this new society, which is outside much of what he has known and grown up in. Both are trying to make a new path for themselves and find themselves challenged by society and expectations along the way. Being the early 19th century, acting properly and appropriately for your station and class overwhelms desires and common sense.

Victory of Eagles and Tongues of Serpents find Will and Laurence very much out of favour with the British government and spending virtually all of the time in both novels side-lined, being underutilized and undervalued, and separated from the main action. In the first they are relegated to distressful hit and run tactics on the margins as Napoleon marches on London because of "crimes" they committed at the end of the previous novel. In the second they are remanded to Australia for their questionable "crimes". While both novels allow Novik to explore the nature of dragons, the world as it was in the early 1800's - full of duty and honor and fealty to the King, as well as the rugged and wild further edges - they both feel a little plodding and lonely. Taking Will and Temeraire is necessary because of the choices they have made, but it slows down these two books, and the series, in a way that harms the series. Now, since the series is not over and these constitute the "middle chapter", they are likely necessary for the future growth and development of the characters and will likely be key to the rest of the series. Novik has earned our trust enough and is such a deft and creative writer that we owe her our patience and allegiance trough these trying times for the characters. I just hope this section passes quickly, as I miss the interplay between both Will and Temeraire and the main characters and core of the action.

If you haven't yet started the Temeraire series, I recommend you do so. Peter Jackson - he of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame - has optioned the rights to the series and plans to make several movies based on the series. Get them in now, so you can say you knew them and read them before they became mammoth Hollywood blockbusters.

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