“Empire of Ivory” marks the fourth installment of Naomi Novik’s entertaining alternate history series that places dragons in our own world in the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
The series focuses on Temeraire, a Celestial dragon usually reserved only for members of Chinese royalty, who was captured while in the egg by British Navy captain William Laurence and bonded with the captain, taking him from his beloved Navy and into Britain’s Aerial Corps.
Now, the British dragons are decimated by a flu-like illness that has taken the lives of many dragons and is keeping most of the rest grounded. Temeraire seems to be immune to the disease, and the corps’ surgeons suspect it’s due to something he encountered on his recent travels. The clue sends the pair to Africa in a race against time to find the cure, both to save the lives of the other dragons and to get them back in the air before Napoleon realizes his advantage and can mount an attack.
But the untamed wilds of Africa are fraught with danger, including a group of natives who have a dragon army of their own and are determined to wipe out the slave trade — a goal that Laurence and Temeraire wholeheartedly agree with, though they can’t quite convince the tribe of that fact.
Over the course of the four books, Novik’s story has evolved from a blend of fantasy and history-based naval adventure in the style of Patrick O’Brien into a more far-reaching tale. There are dark undercurrents running through this book that make statements about equality (for both people and dragons), biological warfare and the line between duty and doing what’s right.
The strength of Novik’s work continues to be characterization of the dragons, particularly Temeraire. By giving them real personality and motivations, she’s able to make the reader forget, at least for the time you’re reading the book, that dragons aren’t real.
Some fans may be disappointed by the jarring ending which leaves Laurence and Temeraire in a great state of uncertainty. It does feel a bit like this is the first half of a longer book, but at the same time it provides a powerful hammer-blow to punctuate the actions that they’ve taken late in the novel (which I won’t reveal here for obvious reasons.) It leaves much unresolved and the reader hanging on the edge, and if you hate cliffhanger endings, it’s probably best that you wait for the next volume coming this summer which should tie up the loose ends.
With “Empire of Ivory,” Novik continues to entertain, while also managing to offer some serious social commentary. It again proves that she’s one of the best and most promising new writers in the genre.