In the last part of His Majesty’s Dragon, Temeraire and Laurence realize that Temeraire is a not only a Chinese dragon as they already knew but a Celestial, a breed reserved for the Imperial family. After Temeraire discovers his special power, divine wind, in a battle with the French, the rest of the world knows it, too, and the second novel begins after the Chinese delegation’s arrival to determine what is to be done about Laurence and Temeraire.
The group even includes the emperor’s brother, showing just how important Celestial dragons are to the Chinese. While China is too far away to provide military aide to either side, the British government does not want to strain the relationship with such a powerful nation and tries to pressure Laurence into severing his relationship with Temeraire. The Chinese doubt that a common English military member could do justice to the care a Celestial should be given, and want to bring him home – his egg was a gift to the French emperor after all, not the English. Given how difficult it is to make a dragon do something against his will, Temeraire agrees to a compromise – he will go to China with Laurence and Hammond, an English diplomat/member of the ministry, to sort this situation out.
There are definitely fun parts to this novel, and seeing the comparison between the Chinese and the English treatment of dragons was a nice expansion of the world building. The fact that Chinese dragons are members of society and some even revered while in England they are treated as beasts is a nice juxtaposition and even makes sense when comparing the mythology of the nations (Western tradition of the fire breathing princess stealing brute vs the Eastern tradition where they are respected and seen as symbols of prosperity, luck, wisdom etc).
The biggest narrative problem is that it takes several months to get to China by boat (this allows Novik to bring back some of Laurence’s Navy friends from the first novel) and as readers, we hear about the entire length of that trip – it certainly felt like it took me seven months to get through this part. While Novik intersperses a few minor skirmishes, political intrigue and cultural clashes (both between English and Chinese and English sailors and English aviators), I would have preferred to spend more time in China – it takes at least 60-70% of the book to even get to China! I don’t mind slow pacing, and it’s not like I am reading these novels because I want to see battles between dragons, but that much time on a boat was just frustrating. Laurence is a bit of a stick in the mud, and I enjoy Temeraire but I liked the interactions with the other crews and dragons during the previous novel. At least once the novel hits China, there are lots of new dragons and traditions, even if Temeraire doesn’t seem to interact with that many dragons on the page outside of the Celestials and the story mostly focuses on Laurence’s perspective. Unfortunately, we get more descriptions of the daily lives of dragons than interactions with these dragons.
While this wasn’t a bad book, it suffered from many of the problems of second novels in a trilogy or series where it was more filler/setting up for later events. Adding China certainly helped expand the world building which made the first novel so fun but it was too delayed.