Book Review: Tongues of Serpents

Descriptions of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series usually invoke the phrase “the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.” But after reading the last few books in the series, including the latest, Tongues of Serpents, I think “travelogue of a dude and his dragon with Napoleon doing stuff somewhere else entirely” would be more apt.

Tongues picks up with (supposedly) disgraced and former Captain William Laurence and his draconic companion Temeraire being banished to the unsettled continent of Australia for having chosen his conscience over orders from his superiors in the previous book. And so it becomes apparent that the reader, having visited locations such as China, Africa, and the Middle East in previous books is in for a dragonback tour of the land down under. Indeed, it isn’t long until Lawrence, Temeraire, and their companions are soon chasing a macguffin into the continent’s sunburnt interior and telling us all about the sights, sounds, and tastes (all three of which largely involve kangaroos).

It’s not like Novik hasn’t learned how to tell a ripping good yarn in this setting and with these characters. She has. There’s danger, mystery, challenges, and hardships. But at the same time, Novik can be a bit transparent in her practice of drawing from a bulleted list of “Danger/Excitement Ideas” and plopping them down in the narrative to break up the travelogue. There’s a bar room fight here, conflict with the natives there, a wildfire over there, and a snake bite induced fever tucked in somewhere else. But at least things pop.

That being said, though, it seems like little of consequence happens during the book. It’s mostly flapping around the outback. Any larger plot about England and the war with France is abolished to the background, and there’s no big ideas like in earlier books, such as equal rights for dragons or the morality of deliberately spreading a virulent disease among their enemies. Laurence’s situation doesn’t even really change until the final pages of the story.

I’ll probably read the next book, though, because they continue to be decent adventure stories if nothing else. The next one seems primed to take us to the Americas –either North or South or maybe both. I just hope something more interesting happens.

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