Originally posted 10/03/10 in my meta/review blog
Tongues of Serpents, the sixth novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is a very short novel with a very transitional feel–though it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and nothing is really resolved at the end of it. Temeraire and Laurence have been sent to Australia and the prison colony of New South Wales. They have not gone alone; they are in the company of Granby and Iskierka, who have gone to Australia along with three dragon eggs in order to establish a dragon covert there. (Temeraire and Laurence are helping in this endeavor in an unofficial capacity.)
All is not well in the prison colony–the previous governor has been ousted in an insurrection which has created a great deal of turmoil. Laurence and Temeraire find themselves in the middle of this as both sides of the conflict try to get him on their side. Laurence refuses to get involved, and both decide to go on an expedition deeper into the Australian outback. During the expedition, one of the eggs is stolen, and the entire expedition heads off after the egg-thieves, and stumbles into what could turn out to be a difficult political situation for England–the possibility of competition in trade with China.
My overall impression of this book is that it is missing two hundred or so pages of exposition and description. We are moved very quickly from point A to point B without any resting points where we can figure out what going on and sink into the scenery. Another problem is that we never get an explanation of how the egg-thieves managed to steal an egg out from under Temeraire. I would have liked to have seen more of the aboriginal cultures and have actual characters to be introduced to instead of individuals who are described from a distance, but are never interacted with on-screen with the main characters. Many questions were raised, but no attempt was made by the writer to answer them. I am not sure what the point is of having a book with Laurence and Temeraire going to Australia if they aren’t really going to do anything (which is very much what this book feels like).
There are a few other neglected points of the story that I wished the writer had expanded on. I would have liked to know a little more about Rankin and his apparent change of heart about the proper treatment of dragons. (It might just be that Caesar has a more forceful personality than the poor dragon Rankin killed. Caesar is a complete bastard, really. Rankin totally deserves him.) I also wish that we could have seen more from Demane besides “spiny angry black kid with a chip on his shoulder.” More letters from home, with a building sense of a long distance relationship between Laurence and Jane would have been awesome.
I did like the hatchings of Caesar and Kulingile. Given the general attitudes of Caesar and Iskierka, both total brats who had significant contact with him as eggs, it is plain to me that Temeraire is not very good at egg-sitting. On the other hand, poor Kulingile, who had hatched from a stunted egg seems like a veritable sweetheart compared to Caesar. (My theory: Temeraire’s chattiness is deeply aggravating when you cannot answer back to tell him to please put a sock in it.)
I did not really like this book and felt it was too hurried and fast-paced. I would have liked more of a chance to get acquainted with the environment of the story, and with the character arcs of the secondary characters. I also wish we had some point of view interactions from the perspective of the Larrakia or their adopted dragon. If you are a long time fan of the series, you might feel differently.