Reasons for reading it: I had fun with the first two in the series, and wanted something unlike Bujold to follow Brothers in arms
How it came into my hands: My wonderful Beau brought me a whole pile of books I really want to read, mostly continuations of series I've already started. I had to stop and pet all the lovely books before I could choose which one to start with; this wasn't the most urgent, but I thought some of the others wouldn't work straight after a Miles book.
Black powder war does feel a bit like some new episodes in a series, albeit a fun series. Like Throne of jade (which I should get round to writing about), it's a one-bite book, I sat down and read through it, and it was fun and exciting, but nothing much stands out. I think if I didn't have lovely cartesiandaemon helpfully supplying me with sequels as fast as I can read them, I think I'd get a bit annoyed with the series for being so episodic. I did need the recaps of the salient points from Throne of jade, as I'd kind of forgotten the plot after only a couple of months. And equally, this volume relates two almost unconnected adventures, and leaves a lot of loose ends.
The journey across the desert that forms the first half didn't quite work for me. I didn't really believe in the danger, and it seems to run along a well-worn groove of the perilous journey tale, with the fact that dragons are involved barely contributing any novelty. I found Tharkay too obvious; he seems to be based rather heavily on Kipling's Kim, one of my favourite characters in all of literature, but it was just too perfectly predictable that he would turn out to be a Gentleman despite his ethnic origin. My biggest problem with the series is the way that women, foreigners and lower-class people always astonish Laurence and co by actually being noble and brave; the trope is repeated too many times, and it feels a cheap way of engaging the modern reader's sensibilities. Also, the analogy between the prejudice faced by Tharkay and the prejudice faced by the dragons is really, really heavy-handed.
The second section worked much better for me; Novik really manages to make battles interesting, and the involvement of the dragons in the Napoleonic wars is extremely well done. This is fantasy war rather than any kind of military realism; the deaths aren't really taken seriously other than one member of the party, and the viewpoint stays zoomed out from the blood and suffering. But in spite of that, it does a remarkably good job of conveying the fear and depression of being on the losing side of Napoleon's successful, sweeping conquest of Europe. And the dramatic escape from the siege at the end is really exciting!
I'm enjoying the development of Temeraire's character; he's very adolescent in this book, and I think that works well. He's intelligent and strong and idealistic, but also petulant and self-centred and naive. I felt that in Temeraire there was too much of the first, making the dragon seem annoyingly wonderful, and in Throne of jade too much of the second, but here the balance is good and we're starting to get a well-rounded character. I still really like Laurence and the way he exhibits prejudices and blind-spots plausible for his period and background, while still being likeable to a modern reader. The set-up for a confrontation about dragon rights in some future book tends to intrude a bit, but I am looking forward to seeing how that plays out.
I've read the first four, so far, and while my favorite is still Temeraire itself, I think I liked the fourth one (Ivory whatever) a bit better than the second and third. Perhaps I just needed to space them out more, as you've been doing and as I did before the fourth (since it wasn't out yet when I read the first three).
Yay, I'm so glad you've read these, they're such Darcy sort of books. I think Temeraire works particularly well because it's such a new, cool idea, you don't mind if the plot doesn't really go anywhere because you're establishing how it works with dragons fitting in to human 1800s history. But just having a bunch more adventures in this cool setting isn't as exciting as when you first encounter the cool setting. I don't think I would have done well if I'd read all the books straight after eachother in a row, even though they're really quick and easy to read.
Thing is, the first book already irritated me at the setting level - there has been dragon domestication since Roman times but we still get Napoleonic wars ? - but while I could swallow that if she wanted to do something interesting with it (and I think there are interesting things clumsily done in the first two books at least about how the shape of animal-companion books mirrors some sorts of romance arc) seeing the different bits of the world where the presence of dragons has made differences, at different scales, just makes it even more infuriating to me.
That does make sense, but I'm generally fairly happy to suspend disbelief when it comes to alternate history where the divergence point is back before the beginning of the story. Interesting things clumsily done does sound like a fair assessment; I am definitely enjoying the exploration of the companion animal trope. And even though it's a bit of a transparent excuse to play with different variations on the role of dragons in society, I do like the fact that the rest of the world exists. The world was very globalized by the nineteenth century, so it's very cool to have a setting that isn't just England with occasional mention of France and Exotic Forrin Parts.
Hm. I said I agreed with all your objections, and it certainly does bug me, but on the other hand, it seems to be the only solution to a common problem, so I've come to accept it. The same argument would apply to Jonathan Strange, and I thought that was an amazing book.
The difference being that Jonathan Strange is largely about Faerie in ways which are explicitly arational - following logic but not earthly logic. So I do not think it is a flaw at that scale at all. Whereas the Temeraire books are written with what feels to me an expectation of rationality in consequences. (Except possibly for one element in the fourth.)
It may be one of those books where the idea is cooler than the execution; I feel a bit like that about Walton's Tooth and claw, too. I agree it's not really Must Read Now, it's just that I'm trying to hold back from reading through the Miles books too quickly, I am scared of running out of the series. And a lot of the others in my big pile I'm more impatient for, but they are all mystery / thrillers and I thought they would clash a bit when I had Brothers in arms fresh in my memory.
Have you read Tanya Huff's 'Valor's Choice?' (Haven't read the others in the series, but this is a fantastic book.)
the idea is cooler than the execution
Yes, definitely. The oher thing that bugged me - I'd meant to add it to my comment and didn't get around to it - was that he left out a lot of intereesting stuff in order to get to the end. There frequently were points between chapters where I felt that at least a whole chapter had been left out. I wanted to see the whole 'learning to be a fighting dragon,' for instance - instead you get 'after three months of training' and the story picks up again. At a couple of points - either in the first or the second book - I picked up the book and checked I hadn't accidentally skipped pages, because the story was missing.
(However, it did inspire me to pick up my own with-dragons idea and develop it further, which is a win as far as I'm concerned.)
I still really like Laurence and the way he exhibits prejudices and blind-spots plausible for his period and background, while still being likeable to a modern reader.
I think the single most infuriating thing about these books to me is how much it feels that Novik wants to have it both ways; that she tries to give Laurence beliefs and worldview suited to someone of his time and context, and then stacks the deck in the worldbuilding outrageously to force him round to more palatable-to-modern-reader positions.
Ahhh, now I understand your big objection to this series. I definitely do feel that the way all the non-respectable characters and women turn out to be such models of virtue is cheating, rather, and it's also repetitive. But I do still think that Laurence himself works well as a character, even if the rest of it is as you say unfairly stacked to please the modern reader.
What didn't work for me was the episode with the Officer and Gentleman who proved he wasn't. I mean, if you're spending time with someone so often, and you're both dragon folk, I cannot see how attitudes towards dragons would never come up. Every time Laurence gets up to say 'I must see to Temeraire' - wouldn't there have been the occasional 'you mollycoddle that dragon, sit down and have another glass'? It just didn't ring true to me.