First Published: 2009
Pages: 345 (Paperback)
Series: Temeraire #5
As is the nature of longer series, the blurb contains spoilers for previous books. So everything goes below the cut this time.
It is a bleak time for the dragon Temeraire. He has been removed from military service, isolated, and his captain, Will Laurence, has been condemned to hang for treason.
For Britain, conditions are even more desperate: Napoleon’s forces have breached the Channel barricade and landed in southern England. Napoleon’s prime objective: the occupation of London.
Kept apart by their own government and threatened at every turn by the French, Laurence and Temeraire must somehow turn the tide of the invasion before Napoleon’s foothold on English shores becomes a stranglehold.
These books are one of those series where, collectively, I tend to enjoy them a lot more than I do their individual parts. Book one was good but pinged my Mary Sue alert, and books two, three, and four all had extended worldbuilding sections that seemed to wander aimlessly until the main threat of the Napoleonic War managed to reassert itself again, pulling everything together towards the end. The pattern, so far, seems to be that the bits of the series that are set in Europe and deal directly with the Napoleonic Wars are much much stronger than the preachier ‘Temeraire and Laurence go and study how dragons are treated in other cultures’ segments. Which is probably why Victory of Eagles, set entirely in Britain and dealing exclusively with fighting off Napoleon’s invasion, is the best instalment of the series since the first book.
After a weak beginning and middle, the previous book, Empire of Ivory, ended strongly: with Laurence accused of treason, expecting the death sentence, and Temeraire sent away from the front and into the breeding grounds. Victory of Eagles picks up shortly afterwards with Napoleon’s air and sea fleets successfully invading Britain before Laurence’s sentence of death by hanging (postponed until his dragon’s cooperation is assured) can be carried out. And yes, I did say successful invasion. The dragons in the Temeraire series are not just set dressing but a real game changer and, rather than simply recreate the events of the Napoleonic Wars (but with dragons!) Novik’s timeline has veered ever further and further into alternate history with each book. The previous book saw a combined dragon and African force driving the British from their South African colony and this one sees Napoleon’s new approach to dragons crown him all but victorious, the British armies and dragon corps forced to fight for their country on home territory – and to reconsider their master-property relations with the dragons they command.
There’s plenty of action, plenty of politics (of the dragon rights variety) and plenty of new characters – both dragon and human. Separated from each other until midway through the book, Temeraire leads a coup in the breeding grounds on hearing of Napoleon’s invasion, taking command of the aged, cowardly, unfit, or feral dragons and bringing together a dishevelled all-dragon army (including a self-taught maths genius) to fight against the enemy. Laurence, meanwhile, is called back into action to find the missing Temeraire and bring him to the fight until the invasion has been seen off and he can go back to awaiting his hanging.
Poor Laurence has it very rough in this book, which made me quite happy. Not that he deserves his treatment (entirely) but it takes the Mary Sue shine off him a little. In the early books it often seemed that Laurence and Temeraire could do no wrong, that they alone were enlightened about what the relationship between a dragon and its captain should be, and that their every suggestion was gold. So it’s good to see their blatant disregard for both laws and command being called out and acknowledged not just by others, but by Laurence himself at one point – reflecting that after leaving the rigid structure of the Navy for the laxer Dragon Corps, he had taken his new freedom too far. And his ex-girlfiend/commanding officer also called him out brilliantly on his ‘benevolent sexism’ – treating her as a lover in his parting note rather than a commanding officer who would be forced to turn the letter into her superiors. So yay! Flaws that are actually acknowledged in the text and cause genuine problems are great, and I’d rather worried in previous instalments that Laurence was being given too much free reign. A lot of his flaws still come down, ultimately, to being more moral than anyone else, but baby steps.
With the tighter focus on the Napoleonic wars, numerous battles, skirmishes, and even a covert mission, as well as the radical departure from real world history and both Laurence and Temeraire being called out for their attitude, Victory of Eagles is, so far, my favourite book of the series. A solid four stars. Though I am a bit worried about book six – according to the blurb we’re leaving Europe and the wars again for more worldbuilding…