League Of Dragons (The Final Temeraire Novel) by Naomi Novik (book review).

Once an author starts playing with history, they need to be very sure of where they are going with their ideas. In some cases, changes can be relatively minor and are made to make the story flow better. Hilary Mantel admits to have condensed some of the events in ‘Wolf Hall’ because to include every nuance would have made passages in the book boring.

She doesn’t actually change events. In ‘The Dragon Waiting’ by John M Ford there is a fantasy explanation for the reason behind the deaths of the Princes in the Tower but Ford is careful not to change history as we know it. The fantasy elements are unknown to the general public. There is, though, a difference between the secretive elements (many of the current urban fantasy novels have supernaturals hiding amongst the human population) and actually changing history.

Originally, this was a point in time, the jonbar hinge, when history diverged from the timeline we recognise. The most quoted reference is ‘Bring The Jubilee’ by Ward Moore. Inserting a fantasy element into history that is overt is more of a challenge.

Naomi Novik’s ‘Temeraire’ series is set during the Napoleonic Wars. History seems to have followed a recognised path up to this point with the addition of dragons. These creatures are intelligent and have populated all corners of the globe. They are huge so cannot be missed, especially when stealing cattle. In China, there is a partnership between people and dragons. In other places, the dragons have developed their own form of civilisation. In Europe, they have tended to be regarded as weapons of war.

Temeraire is a Chinese Imperial dragon, sent as an egg as a gift between emperors to Napoleon. The ship the egg was carried on was captured by the British Navy. The dragons tend to be regarded as flying ships each with their compliment of crew and marines. William Laurence is Temeraire’s captain. Together, they have visited most of the continents where dragons live.

Meanwhile, Napoleon has ambitions to rule the world. He has invaded England but been forced to retreat due partly to the efforts of Temeraire and the other dragons. Seeking allies, Napoleon has visited South America and married an Inca princess who is the chosen of the Incan Dragons as most civilised dragons bond with a human partner. As ‘League Of Dragons’ opens, Napoleon is in retreat from Moscow but his ambitions haven’t been diminished.

When they were in China, Temeraire mated with Iskierka, a fire-breathing Turkish dragon. Their egg is supposedly being guarded there. When they learn that Napoleon’s dragon, Lien, has had it stolen, they are determined to rescue it. It is while they are in pursuit of this goal that Temeraire and Iskierka discover that Napoleon has a hatching ground containing four thousand dragon eggs. It then becomes imperative to defeat his ground-based troops before the eggs can hatch. The final battle is never called Waterloo but it is intended to fulfil that slot in the saga of these wars.

The issues around having so many very large predators in a country have been dealt with before as has the question as to whether they could actually fly. Any army needs to be fed. Add hungry dragons into the mix and the question of supply becomes critical. While the beasts can transport supplies, there is the problem of obtaining enough. Unfortunately, cows do not breed as fast as the dragons consume them and they are not reptilian, they cannot survive on one meal every six months.

This is an action-packed, fast-paced finale to the series and as long as the reader doesn’t look too closely at the underlying rationale, an enjoyable one.

The series cannot just be regarded as history with added dragons as there are changes to the timeline and it is noticeable that dates are not mentioned. Although a broad sweep of events is adhered to, there are distinct alterations. If history was to continue along these lines, the world we know would be radically different and not just because there are dragons.

Pauline Morgan

August 2020

(pub: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2016. 384 page hardback. Price: $28.00 (US), $37.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-34552-292-4)

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