Naomi Novik’s Temeraire

I didn’t discover Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels until the first three books had been published and I picked up an omnibus edition from the Science Fiction Book Club, back in 2006. It was with some regret that I read the ninth and last novel in the series, League of Dragons. I hate to see the saga end.

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The quick description of the series is hard to resist: “the Napoleonic Wars—with dragons.” The dragons are sentient and vary in size, with some able to carry large crews of soldiers. The British dragons are organized into the Aerial Corps; dragon-borne forces have become a mainstay of warfare, but the dragons and their captains and crews remain largely outside the traditional military social structure.

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In the first novel, His Majesty’s Dragon (2006), Royal Navy Captain Will Laurence captures a French ship carrying a precious dragon egg intended for Bonaparte himself. TemeraireWhen the dragonet Temeraire hatches prematurely and bonds with the captain, Laurence finds he must leave his Naval career behind to join the Aerial Corps, a tight-knit organization very much separate from the rest of the British military.

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In Throne of Jade (2006), Laurence and Temeraire travel to China, to discover Temeraire’s origins, and step into intrigue at the Emperor’s court. Black Powder War (2006) takes them to Istanbul to bring three precious dragon eggs back to Britain.

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In Empire of Ivory (2007) an epidemic strikes the dragon population, and Laurence and Temeraire travel to Africa in search of a cure. Victory of Eagles (2008) brings new troubles all around: Laurence has been convicted of treason, he and Temeraire have been separated, and Napoleon has invaded England.

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Tongues of Serpents (2010) sees Temeraire and Laurence transported to Australia, taking with them three dragon eggs intended to establish a new dragon covert in the colony. There they meet the recently overthrown military governor, William Bligh, who tries to enlist their help in restoring himself to office. A survey expedition into the outback brings more surprises.

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In Crucible of Gold (2012), Laurence and Temeraire are restored to their positions in the Aerial Corps and sent on a mission to Brazil, where the Portuguese rulers have been besieged by invaders from Africa. On the way they find themselves in the midst of danger in the Incan Empire.

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Blood of Tyrants (2013) finds Laurence shipwrecked in Japan, with no memory of the last few years, while Temeraire searches for him. Reunited, they travel west to Moscow, where Napoleon has turned on the Tsar, his former ally. The last volume, League of Dragons league-of-dragons(2016) wraps up the long war and the many other story lines.

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Such a brief listing can’t possibly convey the joys of this series. The alternate history is detailed and believable (well, dragons, sure) and the culture of the Aerial Corps is fascinating (there are some breeds of dragons who will only accept female captains).

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Most of all, though, I love the characters, the dragons even more than the humans. Laurence is very much the British officer and gentleman, concerned above all with honor and duty. Temeraire is practical, concerned with everyday matters—and with the condition of dragons as they strive to be accepted as partners and fellow citizens rather than possessions or slaves.

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The dragon characters’ personalities vary as much as the humans, as do their lives in various parts of the world. The cultures of the dragons and their relations with humans vary from place to place, and there are “feral” dragons who owe allegiance to no one but themselves.

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The quality of Novik’s writing is always excellent; the plots vary a bit, one or two reading more like filler than novel. But the characters and the exploration of an alternate history so fascinatingly different from our own never failed me. League of Dragons answered all the questions I had and brought the story full circle. I may just have to find time to read the whole series again one of these years.

Recent Reading

I don’t travel very often, and I don’t use my credit cards a lot, so I haven’t paid much attention to rewards point or miles accumulating on my accounts. Recently, rather to my surprise, I found emails from three cards in my in box offering gift cards for my points. Two of them offered Amazon cards, so I now have a nice chunk of credit there to make those Daily Deal and Big Deal emails even more tempting. And yesterday, while looking for something else in my wallet, I found that B&N card from Christmas that still has sixty dollars or so on it. We all know what this means: more books for the ever-expanding To Be Read shelves. Meanwhile, I’ve taken a few more off that list.

Gone TropicalGone Tropical, by Robena Grant, is a romantic suspense story set on the north coast (make that the northeast coast—I just checked my forty-five-year old atlas, practically an historic document by now, but I’m pretty sure Cairns, Cooktown, and Laura haven’t moved in the interim) of Australia, in the sparsely populated rain forest country. American Amy Helms is on the trail of the embezzling ex-husband she has been tracking for years, only slightly hindered by Jake Turner, the private investigator her father has hired to keep an eye on her. Soon they join forces (when Jake realizes there’s no way Amy’s going to wait patiently in Sydney. Or Cairns. Or anywhere else), and discover that Amy’s ex has stumbled into something a lot more dangerous than his typical con game. Throw in Australian friends and allies, a snake in the room Amy and Jake’s cover story forces them to share, and a cyclone named Robert, and you have an action-packed romantic adventure.

I’ve been reading Joan Hess’ Claire Malloy mysteries since the first one, Strangled Prose, came out in 1986. Murder As a Second LangMurder As a Second Languageuage is the nineteenth in the series, but fortunately Claire and her teenage daughter Caron have aged only a few years. Claire’s circumstances have changed, though. The early books revolved around her bookstore in Farberville, Arkansas, and the local college, but now that Claire has married the deputy police chief, hired a bored graduate student to run the Book Depot, and moved into her dream house, she’s looking for something to do. Caron’s summer plans drag Claire into volunteering at the Farberville Literacy Council, where she is quickly drawn into local intrigue and, of course, a murder. Hess’ books (her Maggody series is another old favorite of mine) combine mystery and humor and are always enjoyable.

Three PrincesI’m afraid I did not love Ramona Wheeler’s Three Princes as much as I had hoped to. Although it started with the alternate nineteenth-century political intrigue I expected, that plot line soon dwindled away as the main characters set off on a trip across the Atlantic, from Egypt to the Incan Empire in Peru, on board a fascinatingly human-powered airship called a Quetzal. The world building in the book is great: history changed when Caesar (why does it always take me three tries to spell Caesar correctly?) and Cleopatra settled down in Memphis to raise a family and rule an Empire. In the 1870s their descendants still rule much of the Old World, and the depiction of a relatively modern Egyptian Empire is well done. The rather bland (and flawless) characters and wandering plot, not so much.

It’s unfair to the author to complain about the things I wanted to find in the book but didn’t. I wanted to know more about the British Isle background of the main character, Lord Scott Oken, loyal Egyptian, descendant of Caesar; what’s going on in Britain, and why are Victoria and Albert ruling Osterreich from Vienna? What’s going on in North America? The obvious (to me, anyway) Aztec influence on the Incan Empire and language wasn’t explained until late in the book, with a throw-away line about a long ago merger between the Incans and the Aztecs, leaving Mayaland somewhere in the middle. I don’t know if Wheeler plans a sequel. Three Princes didn’t leave me with a burning desire to know what happens next to the characters, but I’d read another installment to find out what else is going on in their well-imagined world.

What have you been reading lately?

 

 

 

Speculative Fiction for History Buffs

Alternate History is one of my favorite subgenres. When I searched for “alternate history romance” I was given a long list of steampunk romances, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I vaguely remembered coming across a couple of genuine alternate history based romances, and between Google and one of those trivia files in the back of my mind I tracked them down, two long-out-of-print novels by Maura Seger: Fortune’s Tide (1990), set in a world where the American Revolution failed, and Perchance to Dream (1989) in which the Confederate States were victorious. Apparently that subgenre never took off, alas.

But the idea of alternate history has always been popular over on the science fiction shelves, although such stories don’t usually have a lot to do with science. Steampunk certainly presents an alternate Victorian world, but my suspicion is that it’s based more on technology and society than on history. I haven’t read enough steampunk to be sure, but I plan to remedy that. (In my spare time.)

I do have several favorite alternate history novels on my keeper shelves (and on my To Be Read stacks). Such stories generally have a point of change, sometimes called a hinge, some specific event that changes the course of history from what we know to what the author imagines. Some are straight history, while some add a fantasy or science fiction element.

Harry Harrison went way back in time for his hinge, setting the trilogy West of Eden, West of EdenWinter in Eden, and Return to Eden (1984-1988) in a world in which the cataclysm that ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago never happened, leading to conflict between the highly evolved dinosaur civilization and the rising Ice Age human race. Geeks like me will also enjoy the appendix detailing the biology, culture and language of the dinosaurs. And who can resist domesticated mammoths?

Peshawar LancersS.M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers (2001) is set in twenty-first century India, now the seat of the British Empire, after a disastrous fall of comets in the 1870s destroyed much of Europe, changed the planet’s climate, and brought technological advance to a standstill. The book includes a set of fascinating appendices on history, technology and language. Stirling, a prolific author, has also written other alternate histories, including the dark and violent Domination series and two enjoyable novels based on Venus (The Sky People, 2006) and Mars (In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, 2008) as the inhabitable planets they were imagined to be a century ago.

Lord DarcyRandall Garrett’s Lord Darcy novels (written in the 1960s and collected in one volume in 2002) have a big fantasy element (think CSI with magical technicians), but the world is the twentieth century as it might have been if King Richard the Lionheart had stayed home where he belonged, changing the course of British history with a long and successful reign. Lord Darcy himself has no magical Talent; he is a criminal investigator with a sorcerer assistant. Together they solve cases in tales full of in-jokes and references that will delight any mystery fan.

Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, 2006-2008)Farthing describes a world in which Britain made peace with Germany before WWII began, leading to a very different and dark mid-century. The books are mystery/thrillers tied together by a police detective with deep secrets of his own.

Harry Turtledove is the acknowledged master of alternate history, writing dozens of novels, many in long series, about everything from the survival of the Byzantine Empire to an alien invasion changing the course of the Second World War. Two on my shelf are Guns of the South (1992), in which time-travelers provide the Confederacy with AK-47s, and Ruled Britannia (2002), in which the Spanish Armada has conquered England, and Shakespeare is writing a play about King Philip. Turtledove has written something for everyone who loves history.

I could go on. And on. When I was planning this post I found a notice of a new book, Three Princes, by Ramona Wheeler, a novel of nineteenth century intrigue in a world dominated by the Egyptian and Incan Empires. How could I resist that? Hence a trip to the bookstore (I bought a steampunk romance, too, as long as I was there.)

Sharing these books makes me want to read them again–that’s why they live on my keeper shelves. And while I’m at it, maybe I should take a shot at writing an alternate history romance. Heaven knows I’m becoming an expert at writing in subgenres no one knows how to sell.

For even more ideas, visit this list of The Most Unusual Alternate History Novels Ever Published.

Book Shopping, Again

To no one’s surprise, I’ve bought a few more books than I’ve managed to read in the last few weeks.  A couple of weeks ago I headed over to the Local Barnes & Noble to pick up a book I’d seen mentioned on a site I enjoy, io9.com.  I was Three Princesresearching an article on alternate history at the time, and Ramona Wheeler’s Three Princes, a tale of 19th century intrigue in a world ruled by the Egyptian Empire sounded like just the sort of book I love.  As long as I was there, with a gift card in my wallet, I also bought Gossamer Wing, a steampunk romance by Delphine Dryden, which I’d seen on another blog I follow (Paranormal Unbound).

Yesterday I stopped at the local Half-Price Books, not looking for anything in particular.  I picked up Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons (because, well, dragons!) from the New BestsellerA Natural History of Dragons rack.  It isn’t new (the hard cover edition was released last year), just new in trade paperback, and the cover grabbed me, as did a quick look at the back blurb and the preface.  Then I wandered back through the science fiction racks and made two (possibly contradictory) decisions.  I bought a paper copy of Hugh Howey’s Wool, which I already have on my Kindle but would prefer to read on paper (the book is highly recommended by my friend Colleen Thompson), and I rejected an older paperback copy of an alternate history novel because the print was small and cramped and I know I can get it in digital format and increase the type size.

Then I went back to Barnes & Noble to look for a new book by another friend, Sharon Sala.  I have been looking forward The Curl Up and Dyeto reading The Curl Up and Dye, and I have a companion novella, Color Me Bad, waiting on my Kindle.

Of course I have also been feeding my Kindle faster than I read the books that pile up on it, too.  In the last month or so I have downloaded three Daily Deals: Why Shoot a Butler? by Georgette Heyer, Artifact by Gigi Pandian, and Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly.  I try to restrain myself on the Daily Deals, and I think three in the last month is pretty restrained.  I also bought a few by writer friends: Up to the Challenge by Terri Osburn, Archer’s Sin by Amy Raby, and Draw Me In and What’s Yours is Mine by Talia Quinn.

Currently I’m reading three books, in my usual scattered fashion.  Three Princes is proving to be every bit as good as I had hoped.  The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, by Glenn Frankel, is a fascinating work about the background and making of the famous movie.  I bought this book some time ago, after reading a review in the Houston Chronicle, but just opened it to read this weekend.  I’m having trouble putting it down.

Bride of the Rat GodAnd on my Kindle, I’m halfway through Bride of the Rat God.  I’d read several chapters before I realized that I’d read the book before, back in 1994 when it first came out (I could confirm this thanks to a slightly OCD compulsion to keep all those lists of books I’ve read on my computer–the lists actually predate the first computer by several years, and I must have typed them in after the fact).  Clearly the setting, Hollywood in the 1920s, is just as appealing twenty years later (and wonderfully described), but I’m sorry I no longer have the paperback copy, if only for its delightfully pulpy cover.

Science Fiction for Romance Lovers

Romance lovers, I think, tend to be more interested in reading about people than about technology, which may lead some of us to shy away from science fiction.  Not me–I’ve been a science fiction fan far longer than I’ve been reading romance.  Many science fiction authors write as much about people and their relationships as they do about spaceships, computers, and laser cannon.

I’m not talking about Science Fiction Romance, which deserves another post to itself, but about writers who identify solidly with science fiction.  It won’t surprise you to hear that the five authors I’d like to recommend are women.  I readily confess that I don’t have nearly as much time to read as I did years ago, so I’m undoubtedly missing some newer writers.

DragonflightI fell in love with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern series when the first novel, Dragonflight, came out in 1968.  In fact, I wore my paperback copies of the first novels out and splurged to replace them with hardbacks (still on my shelf) when they were reprinted.  Pern is a Lost Colony, and the books cover centuries of its history, including the romantic entanglements of its inhabitants, both human and dragon.  Yes, of course, dragons–not shapeshifters, but telepathically bonded to their human riders (causing interesting complications when the dragons mate) and the essential factor in the survival of civilization.  The novels were not written in internal chronological order–I’d suggest starting with Dragonflight.

McCaffrey also wrote several other series, some with collaborators.  The Freedom’s Landing series is my favorite of the others, but they all tend to feature romantic subplots.  McCaffrey’s son Todd inherited Pern at her death and has continued the series.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover is another Lost Colony, although in the later installments in this long series the Rediscovery by the Terran Empire adds new layers of conflict.  The paranormal element in this series is the telepathic power with which the ruling class maintains its position, and the many novels follow the relationships and fortunes of several families.  The series ranges from short novels written as paperback originals in the late 1950s to complex trilogies written in the 1990s.  After Bradley’s death in 1999, her collaborator Deborah Ross has continued the chronicles of Darkover.  (Jo Walton has written an interesting assessment of the Darkover series, “‘Culture clash on the borders of genres.”)

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series often does involve space ships, scattered as it is over a wide-spread human civilization, but it centers on the adventures, romantic and other wise, of Miles Vorkosigan and his family.  Shards of Honor and Barrayar include the courtship of Miles’ parents, who meet as officers on opposite sides of an interplanetary war, while in A Civil Campaign we find Miles himself finally ready to settle down and court a charming young widow.  There’s plenty of action, both military and interpersonal, in the rest of the series.  Bujold also writes award-winning fantasy.

While McCaffrey, Bradley and Bujold are long-standing favorites of mine, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is a much more recent discovery, beginning with His Majesty’s Dragon (2006).  Yes, dragons again, telepathic, intelligent, and Temerairebonded with their partners.  But this is an alternate history series, in which His Majesty’s Aerial Corps fights the Napoleonic Wars on board enormous dragons, led by Temeraire, the rare black dragon, and his pilot Captain Will Laurence, who was perfectly happy as a Naval officer until the dragon’s egg he was transporting hatched unexpectedly.  Thanks to one species of dragon which will only bond with female pilots, there are a few women maintaining a low profile in the Aerial Corps, an interesting challenge given the early nineteenth century social structure.  I love these books.

I’m not sure how to categorize Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, but since I got the omnibus edition (there are five novels) from the Science Fiction Book Club, I’m going with it.  These novels blend the paranormal Soulless(werewolves, vampires and ghosts), alternate history, steampunk (mechanical ladybugs!), and romance (ah, that alpha werewolf).  I’ve only read the first novel, Soulless, which is definitely a romance, but my friend who carefully avoids paranormal gobbled up all five in a row.  Carriger is also writing a Young Adult series in the same world, beginning with Etiquette & Espionage, and has another steampunk series in the planning stages.

I have novels from all of these series on my totally-out-of-control shelves of books To Be Read, and the ones I have read remain on my keeper shelves.  But I’m always up for something new, so if you have favorite science fiction titles or authors, please share!

Party Season, and, of course, Books

I’ve been to three parties in the last week or so, more than I’ve been to in months; it’s the Christmas Party season.  One of the parties was actually a surprise birthday party, but part of the reason it was a surprise is that the victim–ahem, I mean guest of honor–was born on Christmas, not a good day for birthday parties.  So that lovely gathering was sort of a not-Christmas Party.

The other two were the annual Christmas parties for my two local RWA chapters.  For years we have played the White Elephant game at these parties, the game in which players steal increasingly strange presents from one another.  Frankly, it’s not a game I enjoy, and I’ve brought home enough ugly, tacky, and/or totally useless “gifts” over the years to last me a lifetime.  So when one of our group suggested we swap books instead of elephants this year, I was delighted when both chapters voted to try the change.

The plan was simple:  bring a book you’d like to share (or possibly get rid of), a novel you love, a writing book you’ve found useful, a strange book you don’t know what else to do with, etc.  The only rule was: not a book you wrote yourself.

Between the two parties (the membership of the chapters overlaps, so several of us attended both) we saw quite a range of books.  The big hit at West Houston RWA was Fifty Shades of Chicken, a rather unusual cookbook  (you can watch the hilarious book trailer here at Amazon).  Three copies turned up (the only duplicates at the party) and they were much in demand.  If we didn’t limit steals to two per book, the game might have gone on for hours.  One copy of Fifty Shades of Grey turned up at the Houston Bay Area RWA party; it wasn’t stolen at all.  The game produced a lot of fun and laughter at both parties, and I hope it will continue.

I decided to take novels I have loved, and I bought copies at Half Price Books for the parties because I would never give away my own copies.  In fact I took two to the West Houston party: one was an old favorite, one relatively new.

The older novel, written in 1949, was George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, a post-apocalyptic novel set after a mysterious disease has wiped out most of the human race.  Stewart was a scholar (I have two of his books on American place names and given names on my research shelf) and he wrote other novels, but Earth Abides is the one still being reprinted.  I haven’t read it in thirty years or so–finding a recent reprint only made me want to read it again.

The recent favorite was Farthing, the first in a trilogy by Jo Walton, published in 2006.  Farthing is one of those rare books that simply blew me away when I read it, and it’s always hard to explain that phenomenon.  Set in the 1940s in a Nazi-flavored Britain, it combines a house party murder mystery with solid alternate history.  The three books in the trilogy (I have also read Ha’Penny, but I’ve been saving Half A Crown until I have time to reread the first two) are tied together by the Scotland Yard inspector who solves cases while keeping a very dangerous secret of his own.

To the Houston Bay Area party, I took a copy of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, a collection of beautifully written short stories that any writer should enjoy, and a book I have always loved.

You may have noticed that I took three speculative fiction novels to share with my fellow romance writers, but then I’ve always read widely myself, and I think that’s a good plan for any writer.  Right now, though, it’s getting late, and I think I’ll go to bed with a good romance novel.

 

Recent Reading

I continue to buy books faster than I can read them (that’s material for another post), but I’ve managed to finish a few in the last month or so.  About ten days ago my ancient air conditioning system died, resulting in an unexpected day off (and a very large replacement bill).  While men crawled around my attic with power tools, I sat on the couch and read Sally Bedell Smith’s Elizabeth the Queen, a fascinating and thoroughly readable book.  I finished it with a new respect for the quiet, dedicated and very competent way Elizabeth II has played the hand she was dealt, and more than a glimpse of the woman under the crown.

Also in non-fiction, I enjoyed Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York’s Greatest Hoarders, An Urban Historical, by Franz Lidz, which I downloaded one day when it was the Amazon special.  Lidz mixes the story of the famous Collyer Brothers with that of his own Uncle Arthur in a short book with a long title.

My craft-of-writing read this month was also on my Kindle, Holly Lisle’s Mugging the Muse.  I reviewed it for the Houston Bay Area RWA newsletter here.

I’m delighted to report that Amanda Stevens’ The Kingdom is every bit as good as the first Graveyard Queen novel, The Restorer.  This one takes Amelia to the dying town of Asher Falls and a whole new cast of characters, and away from Charleston and John Devlin, but she returns to both in the next installment, The Prophet, which is waiting near the top of my To Be Read pile.

On a much lighter note, I thoroughly enjoyed Elaine Viets’ latest Dead End Jobs mystery, Final Sail.  I’ve followed Helen Hawthorne’s adventures since she first went on the run from her greedy ex-husband in Shop Til You Drop (2003), so she and the other denizens of the Coronado apartments are old friends.  In this outing Helen works for an exhausting week as a stewardess on a private yacht, while her husband and detecting partner Phil poses as several different people to investigate a possible murder.

Last night I finished reading Zoe Archer’s Skies of Fire, the first in a new Steampunk series, The Ether Chronicles.  Airships, big explosions, the fate of the British Empire at stake, and a hot romance.  What more could a lover of action, adventure, and alternate history ask for?  This was the first recent Steampunk novel I’ve read, although I still have a copy of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990) on my keeper shelf.  I also have several new Steampunk volumes on my TBR shelves, and on the coffee table (you definitely want this one on paper!) Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible, a gorgeously illustrated book in which literature seems to be something of an afterthought.   This is a subgenre that interests me as a reader, and perhaps as a writer, but that needs more exploration.

What have you been reading lately?

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