“Justice is expensive. That is why there is so little of it, and it is reserved for those few with enough money and influence to afford it.”
Black Powder War, the third in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, was…curiously disappointing. It sees Laurence and Temeraire flying overland to Istanbul to collect some dragon eggs vital to the war effort, and afterwards hopping into Europe to help out the Prussians against Napoleon.
Which is to say: there’s a lot of fighting here. Where the first two books were to a certain extent about avoiding violence – about the careful delineation of boundaries, negotiation of difficult relationships, give-and-take of dialogue between parties with different values and cultural backgrounds – Black Powder War is frustratingly ready to descend into hostility. It’s a book that’s interested in war, in the question of what is excusable in war, and how much responsibility individuals can or should take in time of war. Unfortunately, these aren’t questions that sit well with Novik’s strengths, which, for me at least, lie in the direction of the ritualised and the social. It doesn’t help that much of the book sees Temeraire and his crew isolated: we see virtually nothing of Istanbul, a city I’ve always found fascinating, because the Sultan is bent on keeping the crew captive, for reasons; their journey overland from China contains almost no interaction at all (although the idea of feral dragons was fascinating, and Novik’s representation of their culture as a storytelling one is a nice continuation of Throne of Jade‘s project of complicating the other); and once in Prussia they’re mostly left to fend for themselves on the battlefield.
Novik’s voice continues to feel authentically Georgian (the Circumlocutor says I am not allowed to call it Regency any more), and the tactics she writes into the battles feel detailed, although I could have done with a map because my spatial visualisation is not terrific. Temeraire and Laurence continue adorable together, although their interests dovetail a little too neatly by the end of the book. There is plenty here for fans of the series, and Black Powder War is certainly not a disaster; it’s simply a little less well-made than the first two books.