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VICTORY OF EAGLES
2008

Book cover art by Dominic Harman (left).
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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With all the attention that has been lavished upon this series in its brief existence — indeed, it's hard to believe it premiered just two short years ago — it's gratifying to see that it hasn't caused Naomi Novik to lose focus. To go from one's debut to superstardom in such a short time, let alone to draw the attention (and the option money) of Peter Jackson into the bargain, could understandably throw anyone off balance, affecting the work for good or ill. But not Novik. This unassuming Manhattanite, who enjoys such modest activities as actually traveling to the many exotic locales in her books just to get her research right, has steadfastly stuck to her storytelling guns. Her fifth Temeraire adventure is no less invigorating and filled with spectacle than her first four. Perhaps the reason such consistent quality in fantasy series fiction is so rare is that, among the writers who stay good, the undiluted passion for "story über alles" simply suffuses every page, whereas in the series that quickly tread water, the sense that the writer has lost his way, is just pandering to fans, or lazily cashing a paycheck is just as obvious.

Victory of Eagles brings the saga, finally, to the ultimate confrontation between Britain and Napoleon towards which it's been building for two years. Napoleon has landed on England's shores, and all bets are off. Story synopsis can in fact be easily gotten out of the way with little to no risk of spoilers (though, as with all series fiction, there will inescapably be spoilers herein for previous novels). There are, in fact, two wars in play in this story: the main conflict between England and France, and the internal conflict Will Laurence suffers over the consequences of his treasonous acts at the end of Empire of Ivory. Laurence still believes his choice was the moral one, but its ramifications, not merely to himself but to his country in a brutal war they could all too easily lose, weigh heavily upon him.

Separated from Laurence (who has naturally been tried for treason and condemned) and believing him dead, Temeraire is languishing in the breeding pens with all the useless nags past their prime, who have lost their captains and been put out to pasture. Temeraire cuts through their petty cliquishness and bickering and, with success that is perhaps a little too fast to be entirely convincing, turns these unharnessed dragons into a fighting force all their own, striking out against the French with Temeraire himself as their commander. But Laurence has survived the wreckage of the ship that was returning him across the Channel in irons. And he is given a temporary stay of execution if he is willing to bring Temeraire, with his rare talent for the devastating Divine Wind roar, back down to London for the decisive showdown with Bonaparte, who has occupied the capital where he has the luxury to dig in and wait until the British forces and their dragons are simply too starved for supplies to put up effective resistance.

With the entirety of its action confined to England (in contrast to the globetrotting of the previous three books), Victory of Eagles builds its narrative with great deliberation, though the story is never lacking for solid action. For most of its length, Novik keeps the focus of the plot squarely on Laurence and Temeraire — the former weighing his feelings of guilt against his implacable notions of honor and duty, and the latter's own regret once he learns just what Laurence has lost, and his dismay at being unable to break through the defensive line of Laurence's sullen and grave demeanor. The bond between captain and dragon can never be broken. But there are some crises that Laurence has to work through himself, where Temeraire simply cannot help.

Enveloping all this are the richly developed supporting characters fans of the series have come to love, and the textured and believable alternate-history world Novik has established for them. Again we meet such colorful figures as the childish and impetuous little fire-breather Iskierka, her long-suffering captain Granby, the enigmatic traveler Tharkay. Laurence reunites with some members of his family, only to realize painfully that they are brazenly being used by the French to emphasize their "gratitude" for his crimes and, in effect, tie his noose tighter (as French raiding parties strip the English countryside of livestock and provisions, Laurence's father's estate is ostentatiously left untouched). And if much of the emotional turmoil that darkens the lives of our heroes seems a bit too heavy, Novik's gift for showmanship saves the day, climaxing the novel with perhaps the most electrifying battle scene this side of the ending of Martin's A Clash of Kings or the middle of Erikson's Memories of Ice.

Naomi Novik has not sounded a wrong note yet in this sweeping, lustrous saga, and with at least one more volume to go, it doesn't appear as if she'll be starting soon. Still a glorious series whose future status as a genre classic is now assured, this exciting fifth installment proves it will take a lot more than ruthless war, disease, a hostile government at home, and a megalomaniacal tyrant over the horizon to put Will Laurence and his valiant Temeraire down.