‘Empire of Ivory’ by Naomi Novik

Audiobook Review

Finished on 1/13/2019

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Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy, ALternate History, Napoleonic, Flintlock Fantasy, Temeraire

Similar books: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Promise of Blood

Previous books in the series reviewed: His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War

Recommended World Travelling Flintlock Fantasy

Spoiler-ific review

The fourth book in the nine book Temeraire series, ‘Empire of Ivory’ tells the story of how Temeraire and Laurence save the dragons of England from a terrible flu-like disease. The author successfully uses themes of colonialism, racism and slavery and providing a fantastical commentary on them. This is done while the author maintains a narrative voice not unlike that of era-contemporary authors.

Plot: The story begins with Laurence and Temeraire returning to England after failing to defeat Napoleon in Europe, to discover that all their draconic friends have succumbed to a consumption-like disease. This pthisis inevitably results in the death of the dragon who has contracted it. All the dragons of England will die, taking the air corps of England with them. With a draconic air force, England will lose the war against Napoleon and England will fall.

But there is a cure, deep in the heart of darkest Africa. In the English colony of South Africa, a strange mushroom grows which can cure this disease. So Temeraire, Laurence and many of the diseased dragons travel by boat south to find this mushroom.

I liked the plot- indeed I felt as if this novel had the strongest main-line plot of all the stories in this series so far. Where books one and two had scattered plots which contained more than one episodic plotarc, this novel was thematically about just one thing: the disease and curing it.

Characters: Laurence goes through a dramatic character shift towards the middle and end of this story. He goes through hell multiple times over the course of this novel, and in the end he’s forced to make some hard choices and live with their consequenses. I think this novel had the best character development in the series so far.

Pacing: Thanks to the fact that this was the strongest main-line plot in the series, the pacing is much better served. The storytelling isn’t constantly stopping and starting, making this novel more traditional when compared with the others in the series.

Setting: I liked the exploration of the Central African nation of free black people and their Ancestor-dragons. It was cool, how they had made a fortress out of Niagara Falls.

The plot and pacing are better in a traditional sense. This book takes place in both Africa and Europe, so we learn more about the worldbuilding of the setting as well as developing the broader arc of the series’ plot in this novel.

Constructive Criticism:

First, I feel as though this novel has lost some of the epic, world-treading quality of the previous books in the series. It’s a small trade for a more focused book, though. In ‘Empire of Ivory’ we go to Africa… but we went to Africa in book 3. We explore the continent in more depth to be sure, but in all previous books we visited 3+ continents/islands in each one.

Second, while the plot is better in a traditional sense, this book (and the books in this series as a whole) doesn’t feel wrapped up when you finish it. Each book feels like an episode in a larger narrative, meaning that each book feels a lack of a satisfying conclusion. Cliffhanger endings suck if you’re trying to write standalones, because it means you end a book in the middle of an incomplete plot arc.

Book 1 ended with a French defeat, but not Napoleon’s death. Book 2 ended with the white dragon fleeing to help Napoleon. Book 3 ended with the good guys in full retreat from Napoleon. Book 4 ends with Laurence in Napoleon’s clutches begging to be sent back to London. None of the books feel like a complete story, but a stepping stone in something grand. Unfortunately I have to dock points for this because as a work of art I am presently judging this single book and not the series’ narrative as a whole.

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