Crucible of Gold: Dragons in an alternate Napoleonic-era history

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCrucible of Gold by Naomi Novik epic fantasy book reviewsCrucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

As soon as I discovered the Temeraire series by Namoi Novik, I read all the books that were then available, so I was delighted to see a new volume after a gap of several years. The seventh book, Crucible of Gold, suffers from the problem of many long-running series that there is now a lot of backstory, and with the gap aforementioned, I spent the first three chapters trying to remember who all these people were and why they were arguing. It’s a tribute to the author that I remembered most of them, and a good many of the key preceding events, by the end of the book. A quick “the story so far” and/or a list of characters would make it easier to get back in, though.

Breaking down my rating, since different books are good for different reasons:

Language/prose style: 4 stars. The language gives an authentic period feel, without being so authentic that it’s unnecessarily hard to read. There is an odd thing which I noticed a couple of times, in which we get what at first sounds like Lawrence’s interior monologue (written in free indirect speech, beginning with some phrase like “Lawrence wondered”), and then someone answers him and it becomes clear that he was speaking at least some of these thoughts aloud. It may well be how novels were written in the early 19th century. I found it a little disorienting, though.

Plot: 5 stars. Reading through, I realized that one of the things Novik does exceptionally well is put her characters in situations in which there is no clear solution to their problem that is both moral and easy to carry out. Every option is either morally questionable or costly or both. This happens again and again, and keeps the tension up and showcases the strong moral character of Lawrence, who will put his opposition to slavery ahead of his personal interests and even the interests of his country.

Character: 3.5 stars. As I’ve already mentioned, the characters are memorable, even though there are so many, and the dragons not less than the humans. The dragons’ lack of sophistication when it comes to human concerns is occasionally, I felt, a little overplayed. It’s hard to sustain naive characters long-term without their naiveté becoming annoying, and Temeraire, for me, is starting to cross that line. However, his naiveté and Iskierka’s selfish boastfulness and willfulness do provide plenty of fuel for plot complications. I could stand to see more character development in general. I don’t feel that the characters changed very much in this volume, certainly not compared to the previous volumes.

Setting: 4 stars. I enjoy the world in which dragons (and other mythical megafauna like bunyips and sea serpents) exist, and their influence on history, despite large amounts of implausibility. Such a very alternate world would be unlikely to have produced the same Napoleon and the same Napoleonic wars, for example, and the amount of food such large creatures as the dragons would need to consume just to stay alive, let alone fly for days, is thoroughly fudged, but I forgive all that because of the fascinating possibilities it produces. Even though the population of South America is being devastated by European illnesses, as did indeed happen historically, it doesn’t enable the Spanish to conquer them because of the presence of the dragons. Likewise with Africa, and the Tswana and the Inca Empire make for an interesting dynamic in a world less dominated by Europe than our own.

Overall, a good entry to an excellent series, and proof that not every traditionally-published book has to be the same-old same-old. Alternate history Napoleonic wars with dragons? Thank you, I believe I will.Bottom of Form

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MIKE REEVES-MCMILLAN, one of our guest reviewers, has eight bookcases which are taller than he is in his basement, and 200 samples on his Kindle. He's trying to cut down. A lifelong lover of the written word, he's especially a fan of Jim Butcher, Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett and Roger Zelazny. He reads a lot of indie fiction these days, and can report that the quality and originality are both improving rapidly. He himself writes the Gryphon Clerks fantasy series, and numerous short stories. Mike lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and also in his head, where the weather is more predictable and there are a lot more dragons. He rants about writing and genre at The Gryphon Clerks and about books he's read at The Review Curmudgeon.

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