Visions of Paradise

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Throne of Jade

Throne of Jade is the second novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in which airborne dragons serve as an early air force during the Napoleanic Wars. While large parts of the first novel Her Majesty’s Dragon was primarily concerned with the bonding between the dragon Temeraire and his companion Laurence, the second novel avoids all that slow-paced backstory and jumps right into the main storyline.

Temeraire originally fell into the hands of the British navy when Laurence’s ship defeated a French ship carrying the soon-to-be-hatched dragon egg. After the egg hatched, it was learned that Temeraire was a rare Chinese celestial which had been given to Napolean as a gift. When the Chinese learned that Temeraire was now fighting for the British, the emperor’s brother Prince Yongxing traveled to Britain to demand the return of the dragon.

The Chinese Empire at the time was powerful, so the British did not want to risk its joining the Napoleanic wars on the side of the French which would surely shift the balance of power so drastically that defeating Napolean would become nearly impossible. Instead the British government sent Temeraire and Laurence aboard a huge dragon-carrying ship to China for negotiations. Almost as soon as the ship departs, Prince Yongxing informs Laurence that he is not worthy of flying with a royal dragon, and upon reaching China he will be dismissed. This so distresses Temeraire and Laurence that the voyage becomes a three-way power struggle between the Chinese ambassadors, representatives of the British government, and Temeraire and his crew.

A handful of Chinese play important roles on the shipboard portion of the novel, including imperious Prince Yongxing, reserved scholar Sun Kai, and cheerful old Liu Bao. One of the novel’s highlights is the Chinese New Year’s celebration, and one of its major threads is the prince’s own attempts at bonding with Temeraire–although on a considerably inferior level to Laurence’s lifelong bonding with the dragon. The prince initiates a series of discussions with the dragon, reading to him in Chinese much as Laurence had always read to him in English, and ordering his cooks prepare the dragon a series of gourmet meals, a vast improvement over the raw cattle and fish he was used to being fed.

Traveling across several oceans involved considerable danger. There is an attack by a group of French ships, aided by their own rare fire-breathing dragon (which proves no match for Temeraire and his equally-rare divine wind), a storm so powerful Temeraire must be chained onto the deck of the ship lest he be dragged into the ocean, and an attack by an 85' long sea serpent.

The last third of the novel takes place in China where Laurence and Temeraire must deal with the renewed efforts by the Chinese to separate him from his dragon, since they are apparently not pleased with Temeraire being used for warfare, or bonded with Laurence. Several attempts are made to assassinate Laurence, twice on ship and once on land when a group of several dozen men lay siege against the tiny island where Laurence and his companions are kept isolated.

We meet several additional important Chinese in China, including the emperor’s son who is the heir to the throne. The novel’s climactic scene includes a one-on-one duel between two Celestial dragons which is far more interesting than any of the prior battle scenes.

All in all, I preferred this novel to Her Majesty’s Dragon for several reasons. Throne of Jade was more plot-oriented, it examined the culture clash between the British and the Chinese, and it had an interesting mystery at its core. This novel is recommended even to readers who, like me, were slightly disappointed in its predecessor.


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