Tongues of Serpents (Temeraire #6)

temeraire6The Short Version: Laurence and his dragon Temeraire have been transported for treason after sharing with the French a cure for the mysterious dragon plague.  Upon arriving in Australia with three dragon eggs, they start to explore this vast uncharted continent – and before long, one of the eggs is stolen.  After traversing the whole of the country in pursuit, they discover that the British are not the only ones with a foothold there: the Chinese have opened a port on the far end and have far outdone their Western counterparts.  Meanwhile, the duo also has to deal with resentment from a former annoyance and the complicated nature of loyalty.

The Review: It’s been a while since I last flew with Laurence and his dragon.  Quite a while, in fact – I don’t believe I’ve read a Temeraire book during the life of this blog.  I burned through the first four in a sprint while living in London and then picked up the fifth shortly before I came home.  The books remind me of an English spring, Patrick Wolf singing in the background.  So I was excited to come back to them two and a half years later.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get the welcome I was hoping for.

The biggest problem with this book is a personal gripe – I can forgive or at least understand certain choices about plot, etc – and that’s to do with the grammar and editing.  I’ve been a stickler for that stuff as long as I can remember and having two friends who work in publishing, I know what a bitch it can be to edit a book but also how crucially important it is to the book’s eventual enjoyment.  So I have to ask… how did the first hundred pages of this book make it to print?  I found sentences with dropped words, missing punctuation (run-on sentences, as my 7th grade English teacher would remind me), unnecessary punctuation, and a number of generally stilted phrasings that an editor should’ve been tasked to clean up.  I didn’t have this problem with any of Ms. Novik’s earlier novels so I have to ask: “what happened?” Why was the first chunk of this book rife with such annoying copy errors?  It was a disservice to the book and put me on a bad footing to continue the novel.  At first, I thought it was just my ‘ear’ needing to reacclimate to the 1800s language… but that wasn’t it, because I picked up an earlier novel and opened it at random and had no problem.  Harper (Ms. Novik’s UK publisher), I have to say: you really let me down here – and you let down every reader of this book, not to mention Ms. Novik.

Anyway, onto the book at large.  The other problem I had with this particular Temeraire novel is that it feels so patently like filler.  The fourth novel was previously the low point for me – set in Africa, not making a whole lot of sense, feeling like a filler in the “on the way back to England” sense.  This was doubled by the fact that Victory of Eagles was such a strong and intense novel – the Napoleonic Wars took center stage there.  At the end, after Laurence and Temeraire commit treason in order to do the ‘right’ thing, they get transported for life.  That brings us to the present, with the boys landing in Sydney.  It’s a rough and tumble town and it seems pretty much like the end of the world.  Of course, with the wars still raging and another three or four books in the offing, there’s no way Ms. Novik leaves our heroes Down Under for much longer.  Indeed, the next book (Crucible of Gold, to be reviewed here once it comes out in UK paperback…) has Laurence and Temeraire dealing with the Incan Empire.  So they’re definitely leaving Australia and I’m sure we’ll see a novel with them up in the US before they make it back to England (after all, the War of 1812 is just around the corner, assuming it still happens in this timeline).  But the thing about this story is that there’s a part of me that feels like Ms. Novik could easily have made this a novella that is alluded to in the later novels.  The next novel, let’s say, picks up with Laurence reminiscing about his little ranch in the Australian wilderness as he sails across the Pacific.  You don’t need to’ve read the novella but hey, you get a short adventure if you want it – but it doesn’t matter.  And that’s the problem here: this novel never feels like it matters.

The plot revolves around dragon eggs.  Again.  One of them hatches to a complete cad – one of them hatches malformed and nearly dies – and one of them gets stolen.  The stolen egg, of course, is the MacGuffin here.  They chase it across the country, literally, dealing with all kinds of local mishaps: the desert, a storm, the ‘bunyip’ (although that cryptozoological entity is far different in this novel from what I remember them being…), and a generally inhospitable wilderness that is truly unlike anything they’ve encountered before.  Except… this is the third time we’ve stuck these two in a Strange Wilderness Unlike Anything They’ve Encountered Before.  First was China – notable more for the civilized wilderness they encountered, but it was wilderness nonetheless – then Africa (and the Tswana were a terrifying entity, just mishandled by Ms. Novik – and apparently they’re coming back, so I have high hopes) – and now Australia.  Next, we’ve got South America.  Presumably after that, it’s North America.  So okay: this has became Laurence and Temeraire’s Global Adventure – and I’m okay with that, but I wish it felt less like a superfluous greatest hits and more like a true series of travel adventures.

Review: 2.5 out of 5.  Look, it wasn’t a bad novel.  It just wasn’t all that great, either.  It was wholly mediocre – and that’s, perhaps, being even a little generous to the series.  Victory of Eagles was such a strong entry and this was such a disappointing return after two long years that I’m concerned about the future of the series.  Here’s hoping, anyway.

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