After the previous novel’s odd pacing, Black Powder War was a refreshing change. While this one also involves a long journey since Temeraire, Laurence and his crew must return from China, it is a much more interesting (and dragon filled) journey. After a fire leaves the dragon transport needing repairs, the ship pulls into port at Macau where Laurence receives a message telling him to go to Istanbul to pick up three eggs with no moment to spare. Based on this, Temeraire’s crew decides to make the overland journey rather than wait for weeks for repairs since dragon eggs are precious and time sensitive – they need to be in English possession before the hatch, and while some can take years to mature, most don’t take nearly that long, averaging around a year.
The order also leaves them wondering about how the war is faring – Laurence has received no letters from home but if it is easier for him to get eggs from Istanbul than to have a crew fly from England, something must be going wrong.
The novel takes the crew across a dessert, through mountains to Istanbul, and Prussia. I enjoyed the ferals they encountered near Turkestan as well as the new dragon breeds introduced in Turkey. Prussia lives up to the usual Germanic stereotypes – all about rules, procedures and precedent, lots of discipline but slow to innovate.
The story also shows Temeraire dealing with repercussions from actions in the previous novel. Lien, the albino Celestial and Temeraire’s cousin, blames him for her handler’s death and has sworn to make his life miserable. With her previous devotion to learning, and her 30 years to his 2, she has the tools to make this happen, and her impact can be seen in events affecting the crew throughout the novel.
Novik introduced a few new characters, including a slightly shady travel guide, Tharkay, whom I liked but whom Laurence was quick to distrust. Temeraire still has no filter despite being one of the most intelligent dragons, and Laurence continues to be a decent, honorable character who tries to teach Temeraire right from wrong and do his duty for his country. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with Laurence, but without a dragon, he would be rather boring – I guess someone needs to be the straight man to Temeraire. I also feel like he may have a tendency to misjudge people – he is mostly right but in each novel, he has trusted or mistrusted the wrong person at least once.
I have noticed from looking at descriptions of some other novels in the series that many of them seem to be set in different countries. While I can certainly see the appeal of comparing cultures and analyzing how they might have treated dragons based on their history would be appealing, it is also rather ambitious, and could either be super fun or annoying depending on how it plays out. I mean I still enjoyed the expanded world building in this one but also feel like at a point, it would be nice to just stick to England and developing the relationships and characters there so we will see what that means for the future of the series. The travel was very organically built in this time since they had to get home somehow. Overall, Black Powder War was a nice improvement and well paced ride after the previous installment as everything ends up more complicated than expected and nothing goes to plan.