In the first part of Blood of Tyrants, we find Captain Laurence washed up on a Japanese shore with amnesia and a whole bunch of more immediate problems for good measure…
This review covers the first 5 chapters of the book, and is brought to you by my increasingly conflicted feelings. Spoilers below.
If I have any particular feelings about amnesia as a plot twist, ambivalence is top of the list at best. At worst, there’s disdain. I’m unsure at this point which way I’m leaning in regards to the surprise event of Will Laurence’s brush with it, for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s quickly established that Will’s amnesia, brought on after he’s swept overboard in the shipwreck of the Potentate and washed ashore in Japan between the end of Crucible of Gold and the beginning of this book, is of the selective variety. Rather than having his memory completely wiped, Will’s only lost his recollection of the events of the last eight years or so. He believes himself to still be a captain in the Navy, and doesn’t remember Temeraire or his transfer to the Aerial Corps at all. If I’m ambivalent towards amnesia-as-plot-device, then selective amnesia tends to get a dubious squinting at. Whatever the approach, memory loss used as a dramatic twist says “soap opera” to me more than it says “historical fantasy”. Folks, I’m not here for a soap opera.
Which sort of leads me to the second point of contention with this: once again, the story appears to be wandering off in a direction which I both didn’t expect and can’t get my head around. There is, or was, an apparently established long-arc plot for this series, and (as I have pointed out a few times already) only so much page time left in it. So this latest development is either working up to something genuinely clever and will thus make it all worthwhile, or … it isn’t, and it won’t.
If I’m unsure what to make of all this, it’s because I can’t work out what Novik is actually aiming for, or why. To give the plot device its due, “character suffers amnesia” can sometimes be a good way of taking a flawed character and working out the objectionable aspects of their personality. That said, I’m rather painfully aware that this is easier to swallow if those aspects are the result of learned behaviour, rather than innate – and that’s where I suspect the problem with that potential purpose here might arise. Will Laurence definitely had some problematic levels of prejudice where the Aerial Corps, and dragons, were concerned, and those can always stand to be worked on. The thing is, they were already being worked on. His bond with Temeraire, and the friendships he learned to establish in the Corps (with the helpful bad apple example of Rankin to aid them) were something I appreciated about his story, despite all the problems that rose later. So the idea that Novik is angling to Make Him A Better Man by taking his memories of Temeraire, his friends and all of that personal development away doesn’t make sense.
What this leaves me with is the possibility that she’s playing it for sheer drama, especially given how close we are to the end of the series, but again, that leaves me frustrated with it and with her because we are so close to the end. I would rather see this time being spent on coming back around to the plot goals that she seemed to be aiming for in the series’ first half, than deviating further from them. Yes, we’re getting another interesting look at another foreign culture, previously shrouded in mystery to historic British eyes, but … Do we really have time for this?
I want to just sit back and enjoy that part of it. I really do – and I am fascinated by the notion of Japanese dragons having advanced in their society as much, if not arguably more than, even the Incas in theirs. I do want to see what can become of Will and Temeraire in this setting, and to be fair there was the curious revelation that the Celestial bloodline didn’t originate in China, but was stolen from the Japanese. What that means for Temeraire and Will, and for certain political relations, is absolutely an interesting question – and if it had been asked several books ago, I’d be much more excited to find out the answer. But unfortunately, at this point it just feels like a distraction.
To be as fair as possible, the amnesia Will is suffering isn’t absolute, and its grip on his mind does already appear to be less than solid. He gets flashes of what appear to be his missing memory in dreams, and the muscle memory of his hard-learned aviator’s skills is a nod to logic than I can appreciate. As for the book’s plot, Novik is, thankfully, not wasting too much time in getting our divided crew to cross paths again; with the rest of the surviving crew recovering in Nagasaki and Will having made his escape (aided by Junichiro, a nobleman’s servant with an attitude problem and a big old question mark over his motivation) and now heading that way, hopefully it won’t be long before we can sort all this mess out and get on with things.
But will anything be different, or was this just a tacked-on dramatic twist to keep readers intrigued? At this stage I can’t tell, though admittedly I am hoping it will turn into something good, hence why I’m still here…