In the final part of Crucible of Gold, emotional detachment seems to be the order of the day.
This review is brought to you by weary reader caution. Spoilers below.
So after last week’s upset over Granby, there was considerable debate among myself and my fellow Muskedragon readers about whether or not we’d continue with the series, and it all rested on the final chapters of this book.
We have decided to continue, though admittedly we’ll be doing it with certain expectations rather painfully readjusted. We want to know what happens next, but we no longer have very high hopes for character development. It pains me to have to say that, but this is where we are.
Anyhow. Let’s talk about the Crucible of Gold finale.
In terms of dramatic plot twists, and of the action keeping the story moving, it’s fair to say we get plenty of that. Napoleon turns up, the Empress makes her choice (and it’s naturally not the one it seemed she would make), the aviators go on the run when the Incas turn on them. So far, so … dramatic.
But when I dig deeper into it, I’ve got to admit that surprise plot twists are pretty much all we’ve got. The story moves from last week’s shocking personal development to a series of events designed to resume the previous, and previously highly enjoyable, pace of the story. The earlier books were full of this kind of thing, but the earlier books did it far better because they still had a long way to go, and a lot more character to develop. We’re two books shy of the end of the series now, and I don’t feel any closer to a satisfying conclusion than I did at the end of Black Powder War.
And in any instance of something happening that COULD further some character development, or at least affect the state of certain relationships, it feels instead like a missed opportunity because those situations aren’t used well in that way. After escaping an unwanted arranged marriage thanks to Napoleon’s interference, Granby is injured and, lacking access to immediate treatment, he has to suffer an emergency amputation; he loses a hand. But rather than use this as a good way to examine Granby’s state of mind after all that he’s gone through (though he does, finally, put his foot down with Iskerkia regarding her obvious, and oblivious, greed and selfishness), it’s treated simply as an unfortunate event: it happens, Granby deals with it, we all move on.
Likewise, when the surprise return of Lily, Maximus, and the rest of Temeraire’s old formation leads to a reunion, we get shades of The Good Old Days; the witty banter makes a comeback, and for a little while I got to enjoy having the gang back together. But it doesn’t feel any different now than it did the last time they were together, and by now it really should. I’m getting the sense that, whatever Novik is working towards with the page time that’s left in the series, it either doesn’t involve or simply doesn’t have room for any deeper exploration of her characters’ relationships. Whichever way you look at that, it’s a pretty critical failing of the series in general.
To be fair, you could argue that the emphasis on “historical” in “historical fiction” means that a few such sacrifices might understandably have to be made. As far as the story’s timeline goes, I might concede that – but in order to concede that, I’d have to let go of the “fiction” part. This is, for all of its historical trappings, still a fantasy series. Novik has created an alternate history here, and with that in mind any adherence to those historical trappings is done entirely at her own discretion, and towards her own ends. Novik could reasonably have chosen to go in any number of directions with her story, and with her characters. Therefore, I can’t kid myself that any of the choices she’s made in that respect were less than deliberate. The events that divide Temeraire’s crew and formation, every loss of life, and yes – definitely including the contentious treatment of Granby’s sexuality: these are all narrative decisions that Novik made. And at this point, they are questionable as hell, because I still don’t see where she’s going with any of it. The potential in the general story arc – dragon emancipation, the self-discovery and redemption-style journey of Will Laurence – was great enough that I had really high hopes for where it might all be going. So high, in fact, that for it all to stumble this hard has just left me confused. I still don’t see where any of it was going, because Novik seems to have lost sight of it all.
I don’t know. Maybe she’ll pick up her dropped threads again; maybe that’s the aim in switching back from wandering character drama to action sequence-fest. But I don’t trust it the way I would have several books ago, I’m sorry to say. After getting burned in the emotional investment department, I’m not terribly keen to forgive and forget even if I do plan to continue reading to the end.
So, maybe from here on out these reviews will be far more ‘critical thinking’ than ‘fangirl flailing’. It’s a disappointment, but I will try to reserve what judgement I have left for whatever comes next. It seems like the fairest thing I can do at this point.