This time, the story kicks off right where the last novel ended, with Temeraire, the mercenary ferals and the remains of the Prussian army in sights of the English coast after their escape from the occupying French forces. However, there are no dragons to be seen, adding to the questions that have been building since the previous novel.
It’s always hard to tell with series how much novelists plan ahead and know exactly where the broad strokes are going vs how much is figured out as they go. Novik has obviously been building up to this one with her references to the dragons having a cold in book 2, the radio silence and lack of support to their allies in book 3, only to come to book 4 and have it turn out that the cold was a serious disease that has infected almost all the English dragons. Some species are hanging on a bit better than others and while some seem to have the potential to linger for quite a while, the corps has already lost a few of its heavy hitters and experienced fighters to the disease.
Iskierka, the new hatchling from the previous novel and England’s only fire breather, the ferals and Temeraire are kept isolated from the other dragons but after a skirmish with a French reconnaissance team, Temereraire accidentally lands in the sandpits and has contact with the infected Longwings. When a week later, Temeraire still isn’t showing symptoms, it gives hope to the leadership that maybe there is a solution. Temeraire had a short cold in Book 2 that he caught from Volly but due Chinese cooks’ adventurous attitude towards local ingredients, he was at first able to keep his appetite up and then make a recovery after eating something from off the coast of Capetown. As a result, Temeraire and Laurence embark on a quest along with their sick wing mates, Maximus, Lily and the others, to go back to Africa and find the cure. This puts Temeraire’s political activity to improve the life of dragons and give them more freedom and choices on hold but he does have a bit of an introduction to the English abolitionist before his quarantine and eventual quest for the cure. As a result of these brief introductions, the passengers to southern Africa also include a freed slave turned minister, his freed wife and their two children. Novik adds in some tension between long time friends Riley and Laurence through this inclusion since Laurence’s family is staunchly abolitionist and Riley’s father makes money of the slave trade. Unfortunately Iskierka isn’t along for the ride since she has not been exposed to the disease, but her young and temperamental ways are among the most amusing parts of the novel. Her personality certainly made me wonder more about fire breathers because her parents certainly seemed much calmer when Temeraire met them in Black Powder Wars but it also wasn’t clear how much more mature they were.
I appreciate Novik’s attempt add in some human politics though they are very much used to help Temeraire define his views of dragons and their standing in society. What I am more interested in throughout are her hints at how world history is mostly the same but slightly different due to the existence of dragons and which countries had strong dragon forces. For example, hints have been dropped of both the colonies and things in the Americas being a bit different, and while Portugal and Brazil are mentioned (Brazil is still a place that relies on slave trade and slave labor as a major part of its economy), the Incas are also referred to as an empire to be considered.
While the novel’s main plot is the search for the cure, it also allows Novik to explore more of southern Africa. A large part of the land is viewed as feral dragon territory but naturally that doesn’t prevent the crew from learning more about dragons in the area as the story goes forward, one part that is always fun to discover in these novels.
The ending of this novel involves a large decision that could potentially lead to some major repercussions later down the road. While they may not be as big of a deal as Lien’s introduction of Chinese style dragon welfare and warfare to the French, on a personal level, they could have just as large an effect on Laurence and Temeraire. It’s definitely one of the stronger showings of the series and it was nice to finally catch up with the rest of the crew for a mission.