Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

For those who have enjoyed the series so far, Black Powder War will have nice character development to offer
Black Powder War book cover

Black Powder War picks up almost exactly where Naomi Novik’s Throne of Jade left off. In this third entry in the Temeraire series, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves called to Istanbul for an important mission. This mission requires them to forego travel by sea and instead take the old silk road overland to their destination. Various adventures ensue.

Black Powder War, as the other books in the series, shines the most when the focus is on military tactics and aerial combat as well as when the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire takes center stage. There are several scenes throughout this novel that continue to grow the relationship between the dragon and his captain. In particular, the question of the treatment of dragons in England (and much of the world) creates tension between the two. China has shown Temeraire that dragons can be treated equally with humans and now desires that sort of understanding to prevail in England. Laurence is less sure and this allows for some narrative tension and growth on both of their parts. The other aspect of the novel that I enjoyed were the battles—Novik continues to excel at providing a sense of action and suspense during her battle scenes. She also does an excellent job of communicating the frustration and despair that those who fought the seemingly unbeatable Napoleon must have felt. The way battles are used to communicate these very human feelings is something I love about Novik’s writing in this series, and when there are battles this continues to be the case in Black Powder War.

Unfortunately, the battles come few and far between in this third entry of the series. It is only the final quarter of the book that feels like it has the same tension and suspense that the first book did such an excellent job with. Much of the book comes off as a travelogue. This is certainly interesting from a historical perspective, and Novik does a great job of crafting her alternative history, but it doesn’t feel much like the military fantasy that the series really shines with. From this perspective, the book suffers from Middle Book Syndrome, where it feels like much of what happens is about setup for future books, getting Laurence and Temeraire back to England and explaining Napoleon’s victories. While there is good material here, there isn’t anything that truly gripped me until almost the end.

For those who have enjoyed the series so far, Black Powder War will have nice character development to offer and it sets up what is sure to be an exciting fourth book in the series. At its heart this is a character driven military fantasy, and from that perspective Laurence and Temeraire make a great team! I’m looking forward to continuing.

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