Oct 25 2007

Book Review, Empire of Ivory

This article will review Empire of Ivory (the fourth book of the Temeraire series) and focus on what beginning novelists should take away from it to improve their own skill.

If you don’t mind the intolerably boring beginning and don’t care very much about fresh characters, you will probably enjoy this book. It develops the series without feeling too much like an Ocean’s 12 “Let’s go to Europe!” kind of sequel.

The beginning was certainly the worst aspect of this book. Roughly a third of the book sets up that the characters are headed to Africa to find a cure for a plague that we had been introduced to at the end of the last book.

134 pages is a lot of space to cover such uninteresting setup. By comparison, Harry Potter #1 spent 100 pages getting Harry to Hogwarts, but the Dursleys were hilarious and did a great job of introducing Harry before we plunged into the magical world. By contrast, these 134 pages should have been cut down to thirty, maybe even twenty.

One of the reasons this super-long opening didn’t work was because the author didn’t use the extra characters it introduced. Two of the females she develops in the beginning receive wedding proposals, though it’s not obvious why we should care about either. The second proposal, between two major characters, received so little explanation and came so much out of the blue that it was almost comical.

Another opening problem was that the 134 pages didn’t develop either Laurence or Temeraire. We already knew that Laurence is uneasy about slavery but that Temeraire is a feisty radical. Those two characters drove the first three books, but they were definitely missing here. Well, they were absent in spirit; they got a lot of meaningless camera time.

The middle part of the book, pages 135 to ~300, was much better. The author made an excellent choice to gloss over the sea-voyage to Africa. That begs the question, though… if skipping through the voyage is smart (and it was), then why did she spend so much time developing the captain that takes them to Africa?

I’ll try to recount as much of this as I can without spoiling too much. Laurence and his crew are looking for the magical mushroom. That’s definitely the overwhelming plot angle in the middle; the plot is really driven. The pacing improves considerably and readers don’t suffer through much dead space. However, I feel that it never really gets there, to the sense of wonder that Novik and Rowling evoke when they’re at their best.

But we see glimpses of a fantastic story. For example, there’s a painfully short scene– a few paragraphs– where Temeraire is trying to cheer up his (dragon) friends that are so sick that they can hardly sit up. He reads a geometry tract* and the dragons immediately start tearing into Euclid… for example, Euclid says that two parallel lines can’t meet. One dragon protests that if he flew due north from London and Temeraire flew due north from Beijing, they would cross paths at the North Pole. That scene was one of a few points throughout the middle where I got the sense that there was an incredible story going on, but in the author’s mind more than on the page.

*A geometry tract… what a smooth operator!

It seemed like the dragons were generally doing much more interesting things than the humans, but we didn’t see very much of the dragons. Looking back, it seems like Temeraire was generally as passive and unthinking as Eragon’s dragon for the first 325 pages of the book. The sad thing is that, as the story progresses, the dragons do accomplish a lot but we just don’t see it. For example, (spoiler) the humans are mostly taken prisoner at one point and are taken a bajillion miles through the African brush. (/spoiler) Three dragons launch a desperate rescue mission.  They don’t know where their crews are or how to deal with the vast hordes that are holding them prisoner.

Instead of following along as the dragons execute a cockamamie and ill-fated attempt to free their crews, we see the story from the crews’ perspective as they essentially wait to be freed. It was painfully boring, especially when you know that something exciting IS happening… I know that changing perspective often upsets readers, but you have to follow the story.  And the story here was with the dragons rather than the prisoners.

Slighting the dragons really weakened the book’s climax, which could have been extraordinary. The climax of the book is a moral dilemma that hinges on whether dragons are close enough to human that murdering them is distinctly wrong. The question the end of the book wants you to ask is, essentially, do the rules of war apply to dragons? Sadly, though, the climax falls flat because the book doesn’t do nearly enough to show that dragons really do share human intellectual and moral capabilities. Most of the dragons in the book resemble glorified pack animals, like Saphira in Eragon. Besides, the French dragons aren’t really sympathetic in any way. The only French dragon introduced before the dilemma happens is a singularly unintelligent courier. How stupid? He’s spying England and finds a quarantine area for British dragons that are terminally ill. He starts coughing. The British send him back and he never realizes that he’s been sent back to infect the French.

I also had some problems with the chronology of the book. (Spoiler) The French courier is sent back with the disease before Temeraire leaves for Africa. The French dragons are cured well after Temeraire returns from Africa, but none of them appear to have the disease beyond the sniffles stage. Well, how long does Temeraire take getting back to England? Remember, it took eight months for him to sail to China in book 2, so I figure Capetown is at least two each way. Then there’s the time he spends in Africa, which I figure is at least another month or two. This matters because Laurence explains his decision to give the French the cure by saying that he thinks it will be less likely that Napoleon will invade England if his dragons are healthy than if they are slightly sick and likely to die soon. But Laurence gets back to England at least six months after the French have been exposed to the disease, so if Napoleon were going to suddenly attack, it would have already happened, right? (/spoiler).

Points Authors Should Take Away From Empire of Ivory

  • Consider different ways to convey the action. Does your perspective character have access to the action that will excite your readers? Or is he actually just passively waiting for things to happen to him?
  • Are you using your side-characters fully or are they cardboard cutouts that are just along for a ride? Novik’s failure to develop her dragons is really disappointing because her past books have done such a better job than books like Eragon in this regard.
  • Is your pacing effective throughout the work? Generally, I think, it’s the middle of a work that is usually the slowest– an author knows where he’s starting and he has some idea how he wants it to end but has no idea how to get there. In Empire, the problem was that the opening was intolerably dull and long.
  • Character development. When your characters get camera time, do readers learn anything about them? When you show a character, is he driving the story? If you write about a character that doesn’t really affect the plot, chances are your readers are getting very, verrrry sleepy. One possible problem: in that scene, your character does nothing but muse about the future or, worse, reflect on an event that has already happened.
  • Provocativeness. On both an intellectual and moral level, Novik’s work was provocative. I was heavily amused by the dragons wondering about whether parallel lines could meet up. And the moral climax was, well, climactic and could have been epic. If you’re aiming to provoke your reader in some way, I would recommend that you think of your task as trying to challenge, rather than shock, him. If you’re aiming for intellectual depth, has your work given readers something to think about?

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Book Review, Empire of Ivory”

  1. reviewson 04 Nov 2007 at 10:54 pm

    Hi! I’m very amused by the website.

  2. Malohinon 05 Oct 2008 at 10:00 am

    May I suggest you add something at the beginning of your review(s) to identify the source material? I realize most of your audience is probably quite familiar with this relatively current book, but many visitors will not and, as time passes, a short refresher would be useful. Even something as simple as:

    “Empire of Ivory is the fourth novel in the Temeraire alternate history series by Naomi Novik and was published in late 2007. The series main characters are William Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire. The novels follow their experiences during the Napoleonic Wars, but are set in a world where magic and fantastic creatures are part of everyday life.”

    It may seem obvious to you today, but it would help other folks, and future visitors to get their footing before trying to make sense of the rest of the review.


  3. Travison 17 Mar 2009 at 2:56 pm

    I’ve also read the Temeraire series, and was very happy about it until Empire of Ivory. In the first book (His Majesties Dragon) I felt that the author, Naomi Novik, set up a very detailed historical fantasy book. It ran smoothly, had interesting characters, and a very good plot line.
    In the second book (Throne of Jade) I was also satisfied with the overall plot line, and while it had some characters that I thought Naomi Novik could have done without, I was still interested in reading the next book.

    The third book (Black Powder War) was the best of the three out. It made more sense to me than Throne Of Jade, and it had a quick story line, almost no points where she slows down and overly describes the scene.

    Empire of Ivory ruined my love of the Temeraire series, the beginning was way too long, too slow, and too much of the book was devoted to describing the effects of the Dragon Plague. I had to force myself to finish the book, and I also found the ending to be too depressing. I will probably not read the rest of the Temeraire series.

  4. B. Macon 17 Mar 2009 at 4:11 pm

    I agree that the beginning was awful. Also, I think that Novik is at her best when her world is mostly historical. When she uses the dragons to go off on distinctly nonhistoric turns, it’s not nearly as immersive. I found China’s Mary Sue utopia particularly irksome.

  5. Beccaon 14 Apr 2009 at 7:48 pm

    I’ve been reading nothing but the Temeraire series for a month. I’m completely addicted. I just finished Empire of Ivory yesterday, and while everybody here seems to have criticisms, I can recognize them in thought process only. Somehow I find that I really can’t get on board with identifying flaws in Empire of Ivory. Usually I am very critical of what I read, but the Temeraire series has me so devoted I can’t even see anything wrong with it in the least. I read some of your review before I read the book, so I was anticipating the slow beginning, but it never hit me and I zoomed through the entire book, still as enthralled as I was with the first three books. I’m still completely satisfied. Oh well. To each his own.

  6. Spruceon 27 Aug 2013 at 4:05 pm

    The first time I read it, Empire of Ivory seemed to ramble, and was quite confusing – but that was mostly because I read it in a tearing hurry. Reading it again, knowing the essential plot outline, I found it much more enjoyable, and many of the flaws I had perceived the first time were amended. Most plot elements were explained, on reading it closely – like the ill courier heading back to France, it was in pursuit of his or her captain, who had been sent ahead.

    One plot hole I couldn’t fill in was [spoilers] when the missing British captain turned up again (after escaping the African valley) – obviously he did, as his dragon was functioning normally, but as far as I could see, it was never stated how he managed.

    I find the books very good, so long as you read them patiently.

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