Details: (c) 2006 Naomi Novik; Pub Ballantine Del Ray 2006; ISBN 0-345-48130-5
Verdict: Black powder war is an enjoyable continuation of the series.
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.