In the third and final parts of Tongues of Serpents, not very much is all right.
This review is brought to you by a surprising amount of reader dissatisfaction.
So there is rather a lot to unpack about my feelings regarding the second half of this book (well, the book in general, at this point), and I’m usually not very comfortable being as critical as I’m about to get, but there’s no way around it and I wanted to get these thoughts out of the way before starting on the next book.
Though I suppose the fact that I do intend to keep reading Temeraire is a good sign. Let’s cling to that!
Anyway, so. After a pretty good start in the first half – Australia was shaping up nicely as a vivid, if much more nightmarish, backdrop for Team Temeraire adventures, there was a secret mission to carry out and problematic orders to struggle with (scouting for road-building potential, remember that? I almost didn’t…) and the introduction of a sweet-as-sugar new dragon who brought not only a focus on (apparent) disability but a little much-needed diversity into the central cast of characters, with the surprise plot twist of making Demane the one Kulingile (god I hope I spelled that correctly) imprints on. Our wee sole remaining dragonet is born looking very, very unlike any of the sleek and pretty breeds we’ve seen up to now, and the initial reactions to his apparent ill health and deformity are largely to sigh, shake heads and reach for a weapon to put him out of his misery.
This did not happen, and Kulingile does survive, but literally the only person involved in this scene that I’m at all happy with is Demane. What surprised me, and this is something I still chew over in my mind, is that the other dragons present, while showing considerably more pity (at least in Temeraire’s case), don’t try to stop any of the handlers. (Neither does Will, but I’ve got bigger reasons to be upset with him which I will get to later.) Given how much care and attention was given to him while he was in the egg, I had honestly expected fiercer opposition to the idea that the best thing for Kulingile was a sledgehammer to the head. Temeraire puts up token resistance, but he’s a grown-ass dragon. If he really wanted to stop it, it wouldn’t have taken a teenage boy getting in the way.
So shame on Temmy, but I fell a little bit in love with Demane over this. While everyone else is arguing the morality of putting down a dragon barely five minutes out of his egg, Demane is feeding him and giving him a name. This might (and does) open up all sorts of ugly cans of prejudice worms regarding ‘the social order’ and ‘how things are done’ in the Aerial Corps (Demane is black and not British and the government will throw a fit if they try to make him a captain), but the simple fact of the matter on the ground, as it were, is that Demane’s got a dragon and will fight anybody who tries to take him away.
I am so here for this. So here for it.
Sadly, that’s where the list of things I am here for in this book kind of came to an end.
The trail of their stolen dragon is once again picked up and finally followed to its end, whereupon everyone is surprised to find that said dragon also hatched – in the company of what appears to be a very mixed and matched company of independent traders, who’ve been using one of a new breed of dragon(!) plus specially reared sea serpents(!!) to haul goods in and out of the little port town they’re building. It seems that invitations were sent out to everybody but the British, so you can imagine how happy they are about it when they turn up later.
Yeah. That much. And here’s where everything goes pear-shaped for me as a reader.
We get a fairly action-packed conflict scenario, as is standard for the books in this series so far, but what rubs me the wrong way is how it’s dealt with by Will Laurence. After spending some time resting, recovering and getting to know the townsfolk and figure out what’s going on, it starts to look as though there’s nothing about the business to object to unless you’re an imperialist Brit with sticky mitts and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.
There’s that gut punch of timely relevance again.
And yet. When push literally comes to shove and Will is facing a choice between trying to keep these townsfolk and traders from being slaughtered when they have the nerve to refuse to stop what they’re doing, or following his despicable orders and staying out of it … Will chooses to stay out of it.
Will Laurence, who owes the British government absolutely fuck-all at this point, decides that following their contemptible orders is a better idea than telling the people who stripped him of everything but his dragon and exiled him to the most murderous patch of land in the world to shove their orders up their arse.
Will Laurence, who has stepped out in front of his orders to prevent immoral slaughter by the British government before, when he had much more to lose, suddenly decides that now is not the time. And that makes absolutely no sense to me. It doesn’t help that, in retrospect, pretty much everything about this book is either a puzzling look-over-here loose end in the plot (Kulingile, the bunyips) or leaves me with the sense that the author is determined to take the series in a certain direction no matter what, and that her intended end – leaving Will and Temeraire to a quiet life as farmers while everybody else is shipped off to Brazil to rejoin the war – justifies a whole book’s worth of confusing means.
Tharkay’s spy mission; all the trouble taken to get their stolen dragon back; the revelation of a new dragon breed that somehow went utterly undiscovered despite the prime example of that breed being bigger than any we’ve seen before. All of it went unresolved, which leaves me wondering what the heck the point of it all was. If the ultimate goal in this book was to bring Will and Temeraire to the seemingly happy retirement stage in their journey, it could have been done a couple of books ago. And it would have made more sense then. Here, it just feels forced.
Likewise, if the point of this book was to bridge certain gaps in the series plot beyond Will and Temmy … that’s been done before too, in Empire of Ivory – and again, it was done better. So this just confounds me even further. Why bother with any of this, when the select parts of the book that might actually be relevant to something could have been better served by folding them into plot arcs in previous books? Then we could get on with tackling meatier issues and the pace of the series in general wouldn’t now feel like it’s taken a stumble.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh? But this is how it looks and feels to me. That said, I’m keeping the faith with the series enough to stick with it. I’ve just got to say that the next book has a lot to make up for.
Having said that, the next round of livetweeting is on for tonight, so we’ll find out what’s what soon enough!
#Muskedragons. 9pm BST. See you there.