In the first part of Crucible of Gold, just when Will thought he was out – they pull him back in.
This review is brought to you by my return to the comfort zone!
So the previous book, Tongues of Serpents, did not go over well compared to the books before it. As a result I went into this one with some trepidation; the last thing I wanted to see was the remainder of the series go downhill. But it seems I need not have worried! At least, not so far.
The first four chapters of Crucible of Gold have definitely set this story back on the familiar tracks I’ve come to know and love. This is both reassuring and concern-raising, in a different way, however. Let’s cover the reassuring parts first.
Following Will and Temeraire’s decision not to leave Australia for less punitive circumstances (they could have been pirates! I mean, ahem, privateers) while all their friends departed to rejoin the war effort against Napoleon, enough time has passed for our duo to appear to have gone domestic. Temeraire is building himself a pavilion in their quiet valley full of cattle, and Will has had enough time to reach an understanding of sorts with the local bunyips – the understanding apparently being that if they don’t become a nuisance, then they also don’t get shot. He’s also had time to grow enough of a beard to leave me swooning at the mental image of him, and all of this combined makes quite an impressive opening scene for the arrival (and recurring appearance) of Hammond, ambassador to China, who turns up intending to convince Will to return to the Aerial Corps fold, bearing a full official reinstatement with which to tempt him.
When I was done swooning over Beardy Will, I had to laugh at this, because it turns out that the reason the government suddenly wants Will back so badly is that they require someone capable of keeping a bunch of unruly dragons under control if their plans, which involve trying to convince the rebellious Tswana (the African people who were previously up in arms about their people being taken as slaves, I wonder why they’re upset enough to side with Napoleon) to stop attacking them, don’t work out. Given that a) this does not appear to have worked so far and b) the Tswana have a lot of dragons of their own, it’s apparently been decided that Will Laurence is their Obi Wan Kenobi. He is their only hope, and they must really be spitting over that one.
Because I am not fooled for a minute – I’m pretty sure the British government aren’t looking to make amends so much as to get the Tswana back under control if not on their side, and for their efforts thus far only Will has ever managed to make headway. Read: he bested them once with his old crew, surely he can do it again.
So, to be clear: the British government has learned absolutely fuck-all from previous misadventures and now they expect Will to go back to being their golden boy just because they’ve generously decided to restore his Captain’s stripes.
Will, if you do the thing I will be very upset with you.
Not that I’m fearful; if Tongues of Serpents achieved anything it was apparently to make Will sick to death of taking government orders. He’d happily stay in his valley and tend sheep and read to Temeraire, but of course this leaves his friends fighting worsening odds without him and whatever else he might wish to be, Will is an aviator. He worked hard to get there, and naturally he wouldn’t be doing this for Britain.
There’s a million things he hasn’t done.
So he goes (and I am quite upset that the beard will not be going with him), and is reunited with Granby and Roland and Demane and (most of) the rest – and also with Ferris, the unfortunate soul who lost his position when a scapegoat was needed following Will’s act of treason. He returns to ask Will to take him on again, having grown so desperate that he’s got no better prospects even though this won’t restore his rank like it’s done for Will. Naturally, Will takes him regardless – he even insists to Hammond that these are his terms and he’s not backing down. It’s far from ideal, of course, but Will’s set on doing what he can for his old friend. Good man. Chin up, Ferris!
There’s still no sign of Tharkay in all the welcoming back, such as that is – but that’s OK. I can be patient. He’ll turn up again somewhere, somehow. Right? *Looks wistfully out the window*
Will returning to the company we know and love him as part of means that, regardless of what the government might say about it, he’s most assuredly stepping back into the authoritative shoes of Roland’s captain and guardian properly once more, and no time is wasted in demonstrating that he has not lost his touch; if anything, Will has grown much wiser about the best way to handle rebellious, angry youngsters. When Roland gets into a scrape of the “girl in trousers is discovered by older man” variety (yawn) and Demane steps in to try to protect her, naturally making everything worse, it’s Will who steps in to pull them both out by the metaphorical ears and gives them both an equal telling-off about behaving in a respectful (and respectable) manner:
“Your first concern, Demane, ought have been for the reputation and satisfaction of the lady in question, neither of which can have been served by enacting a public scene in a temper.”
“If a man may be asked to be both officer and gentleman, so, too, may you, as far as duty permits. The ones does not preclude you from the responsibilities of the other.”
But that’s not all! Witness his response to Demane insisting he was only doing right by Emily:
“Sir,” Demane said in protest, “I didn’t mean anything of the sort; it is not as though I would let anyone bother Roland-”
“That, sir, is not your privilege,” Laurence said, “nor will be, unless Roland should choose to make it yours, with the consent of her family; until then, I will see to it you comport yourself as a gentleman, also. There will be no more of this running wild, and so far as you to choose to press your suit, you will do so within bounds.”
*Throws confetti* HE GETS IT AT LAST.
I approve so much of Stern Dad Will, if this is the way he handles these things.
So the gang’s back together and there’s an adventure to go on, which in this section of the book at least, ends on a bit of a cliffhanger; before they can reach their destination after leaving Australia, their ship is set on fire by drunken would-be cooks, then somehow blows up, requiring that it be abandoned. Most but not all make it out safely (and I never quite thought I’d be sorry to see Tom Riley go but here we are), and the desperate, provision-less attempt to make it back to dry land for Will and company leaves them seeking refuge on a foreign vessel. Chapter 4 ends with Will surrendering to whoever owns the ship they’ve so suddenly dropped onto.
And so we’re back on track for adventures – but I surprised myself a little by realising that I’m kind of in two minds about this.
On one hand, I am definitely glad that the series story arc appears to be back on track, and on familiar ground with the ‘handle internal bickering, tease the reader with Will/Granby shipping, get up to sudden perilous shenanigans’ equation that’s been the basis for these books so far. On the other hand… I want more from that equation. It’s a good basis, don’t get me wrong; I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the derailment in the last book. But I want bigger and better things. I want some real subversion of these elements, but given that this is a historical fantasy and so a large part of the overall plot has already been written, I’m well aware that subversion can only go so far. But some would be nice. Let’s be transparent about Will and Granby; put some queerness in the text! Make Roland a captain! Hell, let Demane join her in the ranks. Go down the privateering road that Will’s path in life keeps teasing us with!
Above all of that, though – if we’re going to go back to the formula, let’s go all in on it. Let’s resolve that whole dragon emancipation/equality plot that tied the books together before things went haywire the way they did. On that front, at least, I have some confidence in what’s coming, even if it’s only because I know what the last books in the series are called and I’m quite happily drawing some sketchy conclusions from that. But I don’t feel like it’s enough for these books to be good; I want them to be great, and for that to happen, they’ve got to do something different. Now, more than ever.
So, yeah. Maybe I’m holding the remainder of this series to a high standard – but I think it deserves to be held to it. I just hope it doesn’t disappoint me again…
Next up: Chapters 5-8!
If you missed the #Muskedragons tweetfest last Saturday, the Storified version is here! The next reading will be on Saturday 11th, at 9pm BST.