Friday, April 27, 2012
Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik
The first time I read Naomi Novik's Empire of Ivory, I read it much more on the face of things, accepting the story as written without thinking a whole lot more about it. On this read-through, however, I found myself thinking a lot more about the under-story and the subsequent discomfort and interest it raised. It's a little amusing that I read this book and Barbara Hambly's Magistrates of Hell so close together, because I think both books suffer from the same problem: writing about colonialists in foreign (non-Caucasian) countries from the point of view of the colonialists. This was, for me, somewhat less a problem in Novik's Throne of Jade because, while there was still the same "oh, goodness, aren't they foreign!" tone on behalf of the POV character, Laurence, China was—at least at the time—a completely sovereign (and respected) power, not yet ripped apart by Western (and Japanese) interests. Africa, on the other hand, particularly South Africa, where much of the story takes place, was an entirely different—conquered—entity. And, on the one hand, Novik raises some really interesting ideas of alternate history in how the timelines of colonized nations, as in Africa and (mentioned later & briefly) in the Americas, are altered by a greater ability to fight back against invasion by the presence of an equalizing (or superior) level of defense provided in the persons of native dragons. Assuming that the rallying defense of Africa is able to continue in the face of Western powers, assuming that the Americas were never conquered-colonized, or at least not to the extent they were in our dragonless timeline…that changes the entire history of the world. In some pretty profound ways. Sadly, though that was the most interesting part of the book for me, Novik doesn't really have or make the time to dwell on those issues as, because we are looking through the lens of a British colonialist, Laurence's main concerns—Britain and the war against Napoleon—force us to return to more European concerns. Putting that aside, though, I think that a great deal of Empire of Ivory's problem is the same as the previous volume, Black Powder War, in that (for me, at least), while Laurence is a sufficiently "good" and heroic person to be Temeraire's captain, he's also a very bland character. Which is fine, when it's the Temeraire-and-Laurence show; I think I noted before that Laurence is very much set up to be the straight-man of the duo and is sufficiently unobtrusive enough as to give the reader an easy point of self-insertion, to imagine themselves in his place as Temeraire's captain and friend. But when the story rests on his shoulders alone, though not bad, the story is far less interesting than when Temeraire is along and contributing to the story. And though some of that could've been relieved
during the crews' period of captivity by finding out more about the African dragons, the fact that Laurence was isolated in the cave and/or ill much of that time means that there was no real insight or greater interest offered there, either.
And then going back to my original point/issue and the comparison to Hambly's book… Like Hambly, I think that Novik went to some pains to show Africa and the African characters featured with humanist texture, sympathy and as little prejudice or judgment as possible (given that we're still looking through colonialist eyes of the period), but, also like Hambly, I don't think Novik always succeeds.
In Hambly's book, she sets up a comparison of bigotry in English vs. Chinese and human (vampire hunter) vs. vampire, a metaphor that works on one level, but less so when you realize that the two comparisons equate Chinese with blood-sucking vampire (monster).
Similarly, I think Novik sets up a comparison with the systematic inhumanity of slavery and the business of slavery with a similar level of Othering against the markedly un-human and yet, sentient/thinking, dragons. And, again, it's a metaphor that works on one level, when talking about Othering and bigotry when it's so clearly arbitrary and wrong…but it fails in the way these metaphors often do, where non-Caucasian Peoples are (continually) compared/equated to non-humans, animals, etc. to make the point.
However, on the side where it succeeds, Novik does an excellent job of conveying the horror of Britain's willingness to commit genocide by deliberately spreading the dragon-plague, first to France and then to points unknown, harkening (very deliberately, I'm sure) to the pox-blankets passed to Native American tribes in the Americas.
As well, she brings it all back to the series' strongest point: the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire; the only reason that Laurence is in a position to think anything (or do anything, for that matter) about the government's proposed pandemic. This is most poignant when Laurence is thinking of the life he might have had and muses: "The vision stood at a distance almost bewildering, now; mythical, softened by a comfortable blind innocence. He might have regretted it; he did regret it, now, except there was no room in the gardens of that house for a dragon to be sleeping in the sun."
The strength of Novik's vision, greater than just the bare, if fond and amusing, facts of Laurence & Temaire's relationship, is the profoundness of how Laurence is changed by his love for Temeraire, as are most dragon-friends. Certainly those with enough sense to recognize the gift for what it is. Becoming Temeraire's captain and friend takes Laurence in a direction and on an adventure he could never have predicted before it happened and, having a taste of his life with Temeraire, nothing after it could ever be the same. It seems like there's a metaphor in that, too.