Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik has done for dragons what C. S. Forrester did for ships. The brilliant thing about that is that she’s making it up whole. She has created a world, almost like ours, where dragons are real. They come in many different breeds and sizes and even intelligence levels. In most of the western world they are seen as dangerous beasts and trained as part of the Aerial Corps for their respective countries.

She has obviously given this a lot of thought and the logistics and tactics of war, as well as the general way in which people live and develop technology and art is changed because of the existence of the dragons. The dragons have their culture, each one has an individual personality and voice and are fascinating to read about.

Naomi Novik isn’t afraid to change her world either. Laurence and Temeraire have been through a lot together — though little of it actually at home defending their country — and now they return to England to find all the dragons on the verge of death because of a lingering sickness.

There are some flaws that I find hard to reconcile. Novik describes great hordes of hundreds of dragons, living in the African interior. Where do that many dragons get enough food to eat? The smaller dragons are the size of an elephant, some much larger. A horde that size would quickly deplete the wildlife of any area they inhabited. There is also some hint of an African empire that has plans for invading Europe — which is ignored after being mentioned once — and regards dragons as their reincarnated ancestors. Both of these ideas are intriguing, (what if the Africans had banded together to end slavery instead of actively selling enemy tribes to white men?) but Novik never goes anywhere with it.

Novik does a great job of addressing many worthy topics, such as slavery and indentured servitude, through the metaphor of the dragons. The dragons can speak and reason but they are thought of as beasts and treated as such. Laurence and Temeraire have started a campaign to teach the English people otherwise but it’s a slow process — one that might take lifetimes to resolve.

The story of this book feels like it needed twice as many pages to tell it properly (though it is refreshing to read a fantasy in which the adventure starts and finishes in the space of less than three inches), and it seemed almost like vignettes of Temeraire’s and Laurence’s adventures. First they fight the French, then they campaign for dragon freedom and the end of slavery, then they look for a cure for their friends, etc. It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving things away but it feels almost like a book of short stories with a common theme — the common theme is the virus that the English dragons have contracted and it colors everything in the book.

The ending, though, makes up for it completely. I’m sure some people are going to be upset by the ending but it is awesome. Nearly halfway through the book it became apparent where it had to end up but I didn’t think Novik would have the guts to go there. She did it and it hurt and now I can’t wait to read the next one.

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