Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tongues of Serpents

Tongues of Serpents is the 6th of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, featuring the urbane Chinese dragon enlisted to help the British in their struggle against the forces of Napoleon.

The books are relatively self contained, and it is possible to read Tongues of Serpents without having read the preceding 5 volumes, although I’d recommend that you do as not only do they introduce the main characters and set up the world, but they’re a lot of fun.

To get an idea of what the Temeraire series is like imagine if Jane Austen had written Patrick O’Brian’s books and included dragons.

I enjoy Naomi Novik’s writing, she’s elegant and accessible, as well as being quite amusing. She nails the Austenesque tone she tries to give the books. Temeraire himself is quite engaging, he’s extremely intelligent, although the reader is often reminded that, despite his prodigious intellect and physical size, he is actually very young. I find much of Temeraire’s speech entertaining, he’s given to airing his thoughts openly and doesn’t much care what other people think, unless it’s the opinion of best friend and captain Will Laurence (the series other principal character).

I was quite looking forward to Tongues of Serpents because it was set in Australia. Unfortunately it’s an inferior entry. It doesn’t really tie in with the rest of the books in the series until fairly late in the piece and even then it’s a bit of a stretch. It meanders around a lot and seemed to lose it’s focus partway through. The new dragon characters of Caesar, Kulingile and Tharunka were relatively two dimensional, with Tharunka getting only the briefest of introductions. I also picked the plot twist involving Kulingile’s nature almost as soon as his egg was described as being rather small and shrivelled.

Due to having been convicted of treason and having his sentence commuted from execution to transportation the start of Tongues of Serpents finds Laurence and Temeraire cooling their heels in Sydney. The ambitious and financially intelligent former British officer John Macarthur makes Laurence and his dragon an offer to find a path through the Blue Mountains for him to transport his goods quicker. Believing that the two dragon eggs they have in their possession will soon hatch Temeraire and his companions take them along. One is stolen and this leads the young dragon and his friends on a wild and dangerous chase across the uncharted expanse of Australia in pursuit of the precious egg.

I would have preferred that the book remain in Sydney, Novik’s portraits of historical Australian figures such as Macarthur and Bligh were interesting and worth reading about. The exploration of the interior added very little for me and her realisation of bunyips (Australian mythology’s answer to the dragon) were a little disappointing. If you’ve enjoyed and read the other books you’ll like this one for the inclusion of Temeraire and the feisty Iskierka, but ultimately Tongues of Serpents gives the impression that the series is ‘spinning it’s wheels’ a little. I hope the next book, details about still to be finalised, can get it back on track again.

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