I would like to think that there's an alternate universe in which millions of readers pack bookstores across the globe in giddy anticipation of the midnight release of the new Naomi Novik novel. Well, perhaps with Peter Jackson now firmly in the Temeraire camp, that may happen.
For now, you have to take the word of guys like me: four novels in, and Novik has proven herself nothing less than a master of the form. She does literally everything right here, including mastering the art of economy-sized epic storytelling. In fewer than 400 pages, Empire of Ivory displays more narrative range and depth of character, more surprises (including the mother of all "holy shit!" endings that pummels anything Rowling — no disrespect to her in the least — ever dreamed of), and more pure white-knuckle action-adventure excitement than most fantasy novels achieve in over twice the length. This is sheer storytelling magic, and while Novik's prose may still come off a little affected and clunky here and there — she's way too fond of compound-complex sentences packed with semicolons for her own good — it's impossible not to get swept away by the force of her creative energies. She writes high adventure like she was born for no other purpose.
And what's cool is that she isn't all in your face about it. She builds Empire of Ivory meticulously, without hurry. This may in part reflect the fact she was allowed to take a little more time with this one than the previous three, lacking the deadline pressure of a planned three-books-in-three-months release strategy. After opening with a stupendous aerial pursuit scene, Empire settles into a comfortable rhythm that is at first cleverly deceptive. A lot of fans may be forgiven for wondering why, after three globetrotting, exotic adventure sagas, the fourth is all about a tedious search for mushrooms.
With Napoleon making far too many strides on the continent for England's liking, a new, potentially catastrophic setback has emerged. A mysterious illness, a kind of draconian bird-flu, is waylaying the dragons of the Aerial Corps. News of the epidemic must be kept top secret. If Bonaparte were to find out, he'd waste no time in sending everything he has across the Channel to finish Great Britain off. It turns out that Temeraire has an immunity, after having caught a similar infection on the trip to China in Throne of Jade. His, however, was quickly cured after a stopover in Cape Town. Hastily a ship is prepared, bound for South Africa, with Temeraire and the sickest (and most valuable) dragons and their crews on board. A lot of dogged searching reveals the cure to be an especially stanky species of wild mushroom.
At this point, the other shoe drops. The mushrooms are cultivated by a heretofore unknown and alarmingly advanced African tribe, with their own dragons, a huge arsenal of captured weapons, and a burning passion to avenge the slave trade with total ruthlessness. Here Novik begins to tie together thematic threads that she had begun spinning in earlier novels: Temeraire's personal awakening to the injustices of the world; the metaphoric relationship between the slave trade and the treatment of dragons in England; Laurence's own opposition to slavery, which allows Novik to indulge in some delicious political satire in early chapters, and which is also used to build tension later in the book, with Laurence and Temeraire the prisoners of a tribe whose hatred of slavery they fundamentally agree with. (It should also be said that I don't think anyone will be able to find any ammunition for accusations of racism in Novik's depiction of Africans anywhere in the novel, but you never know how some ideologue will take things.)
[Potential mild spoilers in the next paragraph.]
But Novik is ultimately flying this story into much darker and stormier skies indeed. Without spoiling anything as best I can avoid it, the story climaxes with Laurence forced to make a decision. (Some readers may think he makes it too abruptly and easily, but I'd disagree. Laurence and Temeraire's bond is now so strong that it's simply a given the two of them would never choose to be apart.) And it's a life-changing decision, the kind that hinges on the painful question of what one must do when the people, the government, the country you are fighting for and to which you've sworn your allegiance may not, upon careful consideration, be the ones standing on the moral high ground. There's a kind of trust that, when violated, is all but impossible to regain. In America, we went through this crisis with Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam; to a degree, we are going through it again with Bush and Iraq. While I don't think Novik means for her story to be any kind of contemporary political commentary, the central moral question is universal. And it hinges upon what the individual believes his own sense of honor, integrity, and loyalty calls upon him to do when the crisis comes.
In Laurence's case, it leads to a stunner of an ending that could well make volume five a more frantically anticipated release than the next George R. R. Martin. (And one which certainly deserves to be as anticipated as the final Harry Potter.) Throughout Empire, Novik's talent for consistently taking the thing in directions I couldn't predict was nothing less than remarkable.
At no time does Novik skimp the small details either. Most minor characters are fleshed out just as handsomely as the leads. Readers will get a kick out of the misbehavior of Iskierka, the newly-hatched fire-breather brought to England at the end of Black Powder War. Historical characters such as Nelson, Napoleon, and the abolitionist William Wilberforce are humanized in their portrayals, without falling into the trap of coming off as wax figures in a costume spectacle. Napoleon in particular is given all his charismatic shrewdness intact.
But for all Novik's deft handling of big-budget action, thought-provoking (and troubling) themes, and gorgeous Edgar Rice Burroughs locations, the whole series still wouldn't be the slamdunk it is were it not for its two heroes. The bond between Temeraire and Laurence is what holds us glued to the page. And at the end, as Laurence clings tightly to his dragon and the two of them are forced to contemplate their future and how quickly their lives have changed, we're right there, clinging to the both of them, just as tightly.