“O, what a filthy business.”
Empire of Ivory is the fourth book in Naomi Novik’s AU Napoleonic fantasy series with dragons, and I feel like the length of the series is beginning to tell. It sees Laurence and Temeraire haring off to Africa, in search of a cure for a virulent dragon plague that is leaving England exposed to Napoleon’s plans for invasion. There, they meet penguins, elephants and the ghastly spectre of slavery and colonialism.
I’m tempted to read the overall arc of the series as tracing a movement from an Augustan collective morality designed to uphold the status quo – associated with ideas of honour and patriotism and hierarchy combined with a shame culture that attaches to visible signs of misbehaviour, say an illegitimate child, rather than to the misbehaviour itself – to a more Romantic ethic that attaches value to individualism, to the growth of a social conscience. It’s an arc that’s enabled, in Novik’s world-view, by an encounter with the other, with dragons (who are other not only to Laurence and his fellow Englishmen, but to us, too, since they’ve been inserted among real events); that encounter, that relationship with the other forces Laurence time and time again to readjust his cultural world-view, to become individual and specialised as a dragon captain as opposed to following the conventions of navy life at sea. There’s a very arresting and very clever scene early in Empire which shows just how deeply Laurence’s prejudices run: seeing lady aviator Jane Roland and a surgeon together in a room which he knows contains the leader of a covert, Laurence assumes that the surgeon has been put in charge despite his evident unsuitability before he even considers that Jane might have been made Admiral. It illustrates very nicely the power of assumption, and the power of unconscious bias.
Unfortunately, Empire of Ivory doesn’t extend this kind of clever insight to the main issue of the book, slavery. For the series arc from Augustanism to Romanticism to work, we have to read Laurence as a sort of Regency Everyman, and actually I think we’re actively encouraged to do so: he is the archetypal naval captain, good at decorum, at diplomacy, at hierarchy. He comes with all the Regency baggage – including sexism. But Novik is very careful to let us know that Laurence is Against Slavery. Very Against Slavery. Finding a slave encampment in the woods of Africa, Laurence doesn’t even try for diplomacy; he cuts the slaves free and growls at their owners.
I’m not, of course, suggesting that slavery was in any way a good thing; or that any reaction but horror and disgust is appropriate – but the effect of Novik making her Regency Everyman unequivocally Against Slavery is not only unsubtle, it is unrealistic. It suggests that it was only Very Horrible People who supported slavery, people who did not know how to behave properly, and this is very manifestly untrue. The horror of the slave trade is not that a few awful people thought it would be a good idea; it is that entire nations of apparently rational, intelligent, humane people did nothing to stop it for very many years. Eliding this truth from the narrative does nothing to add to the cultural conversation around slavery – I don’t think there’s anyone likely to read Novik’s novels who seriously believes that slavery was anything better than a reprehensible exploitation of an entire race – and it robs Novik’s novel of nuance. We don’t need stories that tell us that Slavery Was Bad; we know that already. We need stories that show us the truth, that show us the insidious power of unconscious bias, that show us what happens when we forget that other people are human too; only that way can we do anything about it.