If there were ever to be a new Hugo category called "Most Impressive Avoidance of Sophomore Slump," Naomi Novik would most assuredly walk it in for Throne of Jade. This is a book that does what a sequel should: expand upon and enrich the world we are introduced to in the first volume, rather than simply rehash its best scenes.
To provide a synopsis that won't risk spoiling His Majesty's Dragon, I'll simply note that Temeraire, the dragon whose egg was captured from the French by Will Laurence, is a rare Chinese Celestial. And as Throne of Jade opens, the Chinese want him back. As a dragon and its captain share a literal till-death-do-us-part bond, Laurence is furious that the Chinese are demanding their separation, and even angrier that the spineless bureaucrats in the British government are so obsequious towards the visiting Chinese delegation, led by the Emperor's brother, Yongxing. After some defiant action on the part of Temeraire that nearly sees Laurence arrested, an agreement is reached. For the British government is deeply concerned over what alliance Napoleon might possibly be building with the Chinese and their lucrative trade routes. (Temeraire's egg, after all, was sent as a gift to him.) Laurence and his crew eventually accompany Temeraire on the lengthy ocean voyage to the orient.
This sharp change of setting from that of the first novel to a more exotic locale throws open the scope of the series, and shows Naomi Novik's willingness to explore the full stage of history, not merely one corner of it. The sea voyage, which comprises the middle third of the book, offers suspense at multiple levels. Not only do we get a rockin' sea-serpent attack, but there is the constant threat from Yongxing towards Temeraire that plagues Laurence. Though he never doubts the dragon's loyalty, Temeraire is indeed learning new things — not only does he pick up spoken Chinese with lightning speed, he even learns to write the characters — and it would hardly be surprising if Temeraire took to the pampered life of a revered Celestial dragon in the Forbidden City. But clearly Yongxing is not to be trusted, and if he can't get Laurence away from the dragon by persuasion, there's always force. On the voyage, there are at least two attempts on Laurence's life. But not only is there no evidence to tie the attacks directly to Yongxing, merely to accuse the envoy of the deed would be, to put it mildly, a bad diplomatic move.
Novik is careful — and for reasons that have everything to do with good storytelling, not the least with racial concerns — not to depict the Chinese either as caricatures or easy villains. The Chinese have their way of doing things regarding dragons. And they want what they really believe is right for Temeraire. Clearly, there are other, deeper political motives, above and beyond who gets to possess the dragon, behind Yongxing's actions. And those deeper motives propel much of the story's suspense in its final third, where we end up in China at last.
In Throne of Jade Novik goes further into her explorations of dragon sentience and the relationship between dragons and humans, tackling themes of justice and equality. Temeraire and Laurence do in fact see that dragons are treated better in China — hundreds of them inhabit the towns and streets without the populace so much as raising an eyebrow — and Laurence really begins to wonder if this wouldn't be a better country for Temeraire than England. This follows a scene during the sea voyage when their ship stops at an African port and everyone witnesses the horrors of the slave trade. Temeraire begins to question if dragons in England aren't slaves themselves; they aren't horribly abused like African slaves, but they're still kept penned and not allowed the unlimited freedom of humans. Laurence (who opposes the slave trade himself) vehemently denies there's anything like slavery going on where dragons are concerned, but he cannot deny Temeraire has a point. These internal conflicts deepen the story's suspense as much as the external ones, and make Throne of Jade the equal of (and perhaps even a notch better than) its predecessor.
With its sumptuous locales, thrilling action, and thematic and emotional heft, Throne of Jade is part of the most exciting fantasy debut of 2006. Read it. Thank me later.