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Black Powder War by Naomi NovikUK edition4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThree for three. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire saga continues in the same dazzling fashion in which it began. While Black Powder War may be less even in tone than the previous volumes, it’s no less satisfying for all that. Indeed, what’s impressed me all throughout this series is the effort Novik has put into making each book’s story distinctive enough so that each stands on its own, while telling a consistent metastory when taken together. That and her dedication to storytelling craft — she visited Turkey to research parts of this volume — earn Novik the fantasy field’s crown for 2006.

Black Powder War picks up right as Throne of Jade ends. Again, without spoiling that book’s plot for you, it’s enough to know that, while Laurence and Temeraire’s mission in China has ended successfully, it left them with a blood enemy: Lien, the albino Celestial belonging to would-be usurper Yongxing. Now on her own, Lien has flown west towards Europe, where the situation against Bonaparte is still dire. Austria has surrendered completely, and to many it seems as if it’s only a matter of time before the Prussians and English fall.

Temeraire is eager to return to England to launch reforms improving the status of dragons in English society, having seen how much more equality and respect they are given in China. It’s a goal that Laurence, philosophically, agrees with. But he finds himself forever having to lecture the enthusiastic dragon — who still has a stubborn way of not taking the status quo way of doing things seriously — about how slowly it takes people to adapt to and accept radical social reform. And besides, there’s a war to win first.

Before they can leave China, they receive new orders. Three dragon eggs have been purchased from the Turks, and Laurence is to supervise their transport back to England. A fire aboard their ship necessitates their going overland. After a trek across the barren deserts of central Asia, they find themselves in Istanbul, where they get bad news. No eggs await them, the Turks are fortifying their coasts, the British ambassador is dead, and his secretary missing (absconded with the funds?). Clearly more is going on than meets the eye, but how can Laurence fulfill his orders without taking drastic measures that will make his country enemies of the entire Ottoman Empire? What’s more, the presense of Lien in the area means there’s personal trouble brewing as well.

You’re never quite sure what’s coming next in Black Powder War, which ratchets up the suspense beautifully. For most of this novel’s length, action is lighter than before, with political intrigue taking up the slack. But as the story moves along, the sense that the whole situation is, in fact, a big black powder keg, with its lit fuse getting ever shorter, keeps tension tight.

Considering these touchy times, Novik deftly avoids making race or religion a central issue in the scenes involving the Turks. There’s never an uncomfortable feeling to be gotten that the story is taking a Christians-vs-Muslim or east-vs-west slant, though it’s true that people always read through their own biases regardless how how carefully an author tries to tread (and authors often don’t recognize their own biases). While the Turks certainly don’t come off as good guys by any stretch, it’s clear in the narrative that the Ottoman Empire is paying close attention to the successes of Napoleon, who has overrun almost all Europe, and they’re making whatever choices they feel they must. If they’re underhanded about it, that’s just politics. But their withholding the eggs is definitely not good for England, and as they were paid after all, when Laurence decides something must be done, the novel really begins to deliver.

The subplot about dragon equality is carried over from Throne of Jade. One thing I was interested to see Novik not exploit as much as she could have was the status of women in the Ottoman Empire. Temeraire has found plenty of reason to complain about the unequal treatment of dragons in England. But it’s never remarked upon how women in Istanbul have even less freedom than English dragons. The Sultan’s harem are the most pampered women in Turkey, but they’re also abject prisoners. Maybe Novik felt that making Islamic sexual politics an issue could have been construed as an attack on Islamic culture directly, thus provoking reactionary criticisms that would overshadow the story. Or maybe not. But so what if it is? Criticizing the indulgent habits of potentates from 200 years ago is a very different thing from slamming someone’s private religious beliefs.

With a multilayered plot that balances adventure, intrigue, war, and rich moments of character-driven drama, Black Powder War adds an explosive chapter to a thrilling saga, with the promise of more to come. Bravo.

Followed by Empire of Ivory.