Title: Throne of Jade (2006)
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Read: 5th – 16th March 2019
Genre: fantasy; historical fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Captain William Laurence of the British Air Corps and his dragon, Temeraire, begin their slow voyage to China, fearful that upon landing they will be forced to part by Imperial decree. Temeraire is a Celestial dragon, the most highly-prized of all draconic breeds; famed for their intelligence, agility and most of all for the Divine Wind – their terrible roar capable of shattering the heavy timbers of war ships, shattering woodland and destroying other dragons mid-flight. Temeraire’s egg was captured and claimed by the British at sea, but he was meant to be the companion of the Emperor Napoleon and not captained by a mere officer in the British Air Corps. The Chinese have demanded his return and the British cannot refuse them – they cannot afford to provoke the asian super-power into allying themselves with the French – even if it costs them the most powerful weapon in their arsenal and inflicts the most unimaginable pain upon Laurence and his dragon.“ (Synopsis from publisher)
Throne of Jade picks up where the first book, Temeraire, left off – we follow Captain William Laurence and his dragon Temeraire of the British Air Corps in the aftermath of the Battle of Dover, of which they were crucial players. However, very quickly the British military’s attention is turned from the impending French threat to Imperial China who prove to be a threat of their own when they come to England asserting their claim to Temeraire and demand his return. The egg that was Temeraire, which the British Navy recovered when they stormed a ship in the opening chapter of the first book, was intended as a gift for the French emperor Napoleon as he is a rare and much prized breed of Celestial dragon bred by China. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese now want him back.
” ‘You speak in ignorant disdain of the foremost nation of the world,’ Yongxing said, growing angry himself, ‘like all your country-men, who show no respect for that which is superior, and insult our customs.’ “
It was fascinating to see how Naomi Novik expanded the story she’d set up so wonderfully in the first book to become a much more complex and global story. Where the action of the first book was mostly centred around the British Isles and the training of Temeraire into a fighting dragon under the tutelage of the Air Corps, the second book considers the political situation between Britain and her allies or enemies and the international relations they cultivate in the name of trade, specifically with the Far East. Novik introduces Imperial China’s claim to Temeraire, prompting the British, in an effort at diplomacy, to relent to seeing Temeraire taken back to China to meet the Emperor, providing that he can be accompanied by his flight crew and they go via sea, specifically by the British Navy crewed HMS Allegiance. Through this we well and truly see the meeting of Captain Laurence’s two worlds – once a ship’s captain, he was forced into joining the Aerial Corps when Temeraire hatched from his shell and bonded with him – and see how he straddles the line between the behaviours and opinions of the two different branches of the British military. It was also fun to see the differences between the aviators and the sailors and then have these contrasted with the aloof Chinese delegation who accompany them on their journey back to China.
“I am very tired of this Government, which I have never seen, and which is always insisting that I must do disagreeable things, and does no good to anybody.”
This book is, essentially, a journey to China by ship. This means that a large portion of the book finds our characters confined to the HMS Allegiance and most of the action is relating to making sure a dragon doesn’t accidentally capsize the ship when he decides to go for a midday swim, fending off an impromptu attack from the French, and then fighting an infamous sea serpent when it tries to make a snack out of the Navy’s vessel. With this too comes the tension of the lurking Chinese characters – Laurence is paranoid that they might try to harm the crew, take Temeraire by force, or persuade Temeraire that China is a much more appealing home for a dragon than Britain is. When they finally complete their voyage and land of Chinese shores, it’s hard to disagree: China treats their dragons with respect and dignity, holding them in high esteem, and dragons are given free rein to wander about their cities, unlike their British counterparts who are kept in coverts so as not to alarm the general public. I very much enjoyed seeing China and my one regret for this book is that it took the HMS Allegiance so long to make its voyage there – after all, there’s only so much navy talk and boat-related drama that I can take before it stops being completely interesting.
” ‘Those men want to take Laurence from me, and put him in prison, and execute him, and I will not let them, ever, and I do not care if Laurence tells me not to squash you,’ he added, fiercely, to Lord Barham.”
Temeraire himself remains hilarious and astute – as he is a dragon he is able to highlight and question areas of society which Laurence finds perfectly natural but which non-humans are puzzled by, specifically slavery. Although Laurence himself doesn’t support the slave trade, when they have to restock the ship with supplies in a slaver port, Temeraire asks him some uncomfortable questions about why men, women, and children are bound in chains if they haven’t done anything bad. As in the previous book, Laurence finds his own world view being questioned and enriched by his dragon’s curiosity and confusion about how humans manage their societies. In this book too, Temeraire’s intelligence and salience is enriched by his interactions with the Chinese delegation as it turns out he is able to speak Mandarin and communicate, acting as a translator of sorts for the crew on the ship, and then he even later goes on to develop an interest in writing poetry, if only he might learn how to master manipulating a writing implement with his talons!
“a girl had supposedly disguised herself as a man to fight in her father’s stead, had become companion to a military dragon and saved the empire by winning a great battle”
If there’s one complaint I have about the story it’s this: it is very male centred. Most of the characters are male, including the dragons, and although the character of Jane Roland makes an appearance at the start of this novel, she doesn’t stay around for very long. I find this a shame as I do quite like her and Laurence’s relationship and interactions. At least Roland’s daughter is part of Temeraire’s crew, so she is taken along on the voyage, but even so the balance of men to women is woefully skewed in the former’s favour in this story and it can get a little tiring. It mainly seems, to me, something of a shame to go to the trouble of creating the circumstance in which a specific breed of dragon, longwings, will only take to female aviators (so as to cleverly bypass what would otherwise be a naturally male-heavy military force) and then not really continue to utilise it fully in the subsequent story. Perhaps it is just this book that felt particularly masculine, and I will see more female characters in the rest of the series, but only time will tell on that front.
” ‘It is different for dragons than for people,’ Laurence said. ‘Among other things, women must bear children, and care for them through childhood, where your kind lay eggs and hatch ready to look to your own needs.’
Temeraire blinked at this intelligence. ‘You do not hatch out of eggs?’ he asked, in deep fascination. ‘How then–‘ “
This is a book that has a lot more going for it than it says on the tin: seemingly an alternate history fantasy where dragons are added into the Napoleonic Wars, Throne of Jade also grapples with very real and grounded concerns of that same era. The book interrogates political questions of the time, specifically matters of Chinese isolationism, British colonialism, and the slave trade, to name but a few. It’s not something I necessarily expected of a fantasy novel featuring dragons but I think Naomi Novik’s world and story is all the more enriched for this intricate level of detail and undercurrent that she writes into each and every interaction within the novel. I sincerely hope to see her continue to expand the world of Temeraire into other countries and cultures as the series progresses.
“Laurence was by long experience better prepared for Temeraire’s radical notions…”