Fortunately after the slog that was the sixth novel in the series, Crucible of Gold has many of the elements that made the earlier novels so much fun – lots of interactions between different dragons and an introduction to another part of the world with some very well thought out analysis of how the presence of dragons would have affected global and local history.
Over the past few novels, Napoleon has taken advantage of the Tswana dragons’ hatred of slavery and desire to get their people back by providing them transport to Brazil. Since the Portuguese are one of the British allies remaining in Europe, dividing the Portugese front across the Atlantic only helps the French and negatively affects the British. As a result, Hammond, British diplomat unofficially stationed in China, comes to Australia with a proposal for Laurence: Be reinstated as an officer in the Aerial Corps, go to Brazil, and negotiate a compromise or peace with the Twsana. After all Laurence is somewhat disposable in his current situation and he has actually met and interacted with some of the African dragons previously, so there really isn’t a way the British government can lose on this.
The Allegiant hadn’t even made it back to Britain before receiving orders to turn around so Temeraire is soon rejoined by Granby and Iskierka. Additionally, Laurence’s former first lieutenant who was disgraced as a result of Laurence’s treason has come to Australia and rejoins the crew in an unofficial capacity. Kuningile and Demaine round out the diplomatic team, since Laurence doesn’t want to leave the teenager behind with the remaining leadership of the covert. I quite like Kuningile since he is a nice balance to the temperamental Iskierka and self righteous Temeraire. He is easy going and sweet tempered but turns vicious if anyone comes even close to threatening Demaine.
Due to misfortunes, the three dragons and their crews end up in Inca territory, and this is where the reader gets to see the alternative history version of Peru and the Incan empire. I quite liked how she balanced what dragons could have affected and what would have happened whether dragons were there or not. As she slowly allows Laurence and his team to learn more about their new surroundings, she actually sets up the initial story of the conquistadors to be very similar to what actually happened, and how Pizzaro was able to suppress any resistance due to taking the right people hostage. The difference is what happens after he kills an important hostage and how the dragons react. While this allows the Incan Empire to survive, it also too late for much of the population – disease still sweeps the country, killing many, leading to a complete shift in the ratio of dragons to humans.
Additionally, I quite liked how the relationships with the Incan dragons were portrayed. In Europe, dragons and captains are paired up, in China there is a similar relationship though it is on a different time line and not all dragons have companions, and for the Tswana, dragons are viewed as reborn ancestors. In the Incan empire, the dragons can most easily be described as the guardians/leaders of communities of people with their concern spread out across a multitude of people rather than being focused all on one person.
However, despite this side journey, the crew also remains focused on their original mission, allowing for a nice brisk pace. Novik did a good job of balancing information, adventure and the characters in this one, so it was a nice return to form after the previous novel which suffered by being too confined in scope and locale.