History is written by the winners, and while Napoléon himself was not, eventually, victorious, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is a triumph of historical fantasy. I’ve written in a previous post about how much I enjoy the worldbuilding in Temeraire, and that will comprise a part of this review, however there is plenty more to love about the series as well.
[warning: here there be spoilers]
I’ve been a fan of the Temeraire series for a long time. In high school, one Christmas, I was given a lovely compendium of the first three books in the series by an aunt, but it was a little too early for me to know what was what and I didn’t pick it up until I was an undergraduate. Needless to say I fell instantly in love and have followed the series ever since. So finishing the final book, now, after all these years, feels more like the completion of a journey than any other series I’ve read.
My only major complaint about the final book, and potentially about the latter half of the series as well, is that of a greedy fan. While the series goes into extensive depth about Laurence and Temeraire’s inner thoughts and personal development, there is not enough-for my taste anyway-development of the side characters (Roland, Granby, Tharkay, Demane, etc) that made me so love the series, and that made it so much more than just ‘a war story with dragons’. While the first chapters of the final book resemble nothing so much as an all-stars ten-year reunion from the return of Anahuarque (the Incan empress and wife of Napoléon) and Junichiro (the young nobleman who helps Laurence escape Japan in book 8), to a whole bevy of minor human and draconic side characters from throughout the series, none of them (least of all the secondary aviator characters I’d so grown to love in the previous books) had their final say. I couldn’t help but want to know more about what happened to all of them.
And this, I suppose, is the mark of a great series. In fact, I haven’t felt this way about a set of characters since I was a kid devouring the Harry Potter books one at a time as they came out. The characters that Novik paints may be true-to-type sometimes, Laurence is ever the regency hero: honor-bound to the point of folly, Temeraire is young and passionate and sometimes even unworldly for all his travels, Granby is the rough-mannered and competent aerial captain but often tripped-up by that which he’s always desired: in thrall to the whims of his willful dragon, and so on-but they are just as often surprising: Granby (at the cost of a hand) stands up to his firebreathing companion. Demane goes to war on his own (well, save for his twenty-ton draconic companion) and, proving himself willing to follow orders, seems to have cemented his career. Junichiro’s sense of honor turns out to be more complex than expected and he follows the path that, while uncomfortable personally, goes further towards ensuring his own country’s continued survival in the face of an expanding China. Finally Anahuarque, who has turned out to be one of my favorite characters, skillfully maneuvers herself onto the throne and is forced to make the hard call that ends the war, nearly singlehandedly.
Now, I’ve spoken about the worldbuilding in Temeraire at length elsewhere but it bears mentioning again. Novik has proved herself willing to go to great lengths for the sake of research and verisimilitude, and this is one factor which so elevates the series above others of its type. The other factor, the one that raises the scale of the series to an epic level when it might have been contained (well, hard to contain a story that visits nearly continent) is the fact that it shows a world in the midst of an upheaval, an upheaval that materially affects the story. By the end of the series we see more women in positions of power, the collapse of the Atlantic slave trade (and I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of historians in that field on how this was achieved in Crucible of Gold), and the entry of dragons into parliament. The characters-none moreso than Laurence, arguably-are products of their world, and therefore when they are shown to take these changes in stride (those of them that do) it makes their victories, like the end of the series itself, all the more satisfying.
Above all, League of dragons is a satisfying completion to a gem of a series. I have an urge to ask for a spinoff series: I want to know how Temeraire and Perscitia do in parliament! I want to know more about the American dragons! I want to see domestic househusband Laurence chopping wood in Tharkay’s yard! But part of me knows that Novik has written us a complete series and tied it up with a bow, and if she proves unwilling to start teasing it out again, that’s reasonable (though she has stated that she’s got plans for some short stories and *gasp* a graphic novel series!). But the beautiful thing about a series such as this-born as it was from fan fiction itself-is that it’s given us such a developed world and set of characters that devoted fans can write their own endings and spinoffs and know that we have the tacit approval of the series’ creator.