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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shelf Life: Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

Genre: Alternate history adventure

The Pitch (series): In her Temeraire series, Naomi Novik envisions an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars, with the added wrinkle of flying, sentient dragons who serve simultaneously as fighters and aircraft. William Lawrence, formerly a captain in the Royal Navy, is both pilot and beloved companion to the giant dragon Temeraire. Think “Master Monster and Commander.”

The Pitch (this book): In the series’ sixth outing, published July 13, Laurence and Temeraire begin their exile on the fledgling colony of Australia, where they deal with the original Captain Bligh, revolting colonists, a hostile wilderness, the surprising fate of three dragon eggs and evidence of a powerful nation working against England’s interests.

First line: “There were few streets in the main port of Sydney which deserved that name, besides the one main thoroughfare, and even that bare packed dirt, lined only with a handful of small and wretched buildings that formed all the permanence of the colony.”

Geek factor: Sky-high, but as much for military-history obsessives as the Dungeons and Dragons crowd.

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: Most of the novel chronicles a desperate mission across the length of the desiccated Australian outback, where Laurence, Temeraire and their companions encounter native creatures with habits comparable to the beasties in Kevin Bacon’s Tremors.

Monstrous personalities: Many dragons in the fantasy genre tend to embody either bland nobility or destructive evil. Novik wittily depicts her dragons as finicky, idiosyncratic beings prone to pride, jealousy and undying loyalty to their pilots. The petty rivalries between the dragons provide comic relief, but readers will probably be touched by Laurence and Temeraire’s devotion.

Historical footnote: Tongues of Serpents’ early chapters take place in the aftermath of the 1808 Rum Rebellion, when Governor Bligh — yes, the former captain of the Bounty — was overthrown by the New South Wales Corps. Laurence and Temeraire find themselves pressured to choose between Bligh and the illegal government. Plus, Bligh’s famous mutinies foreshadow potential tensions between Laurence and his rivals on the fraught mission that follows.

Why Wikipedia was invented: Novik tends to leave physical description to a minimum, and even her fans may mix up the supporting players. Hint: “Roland” is a woman.

Holds the line?: Novik’s previous book, the thrilling Victory of Eagles, imagined Napoleon invading England, supported by an air force of giant reptiles, with devastating results. Tongues of Serpents is slightly less eventful than that epic adventure, but hints at big events in North America which probably set up the plot of subsequent books.

Tongues of Serpents. Naomi Novik, Del Rey, $25, 288 pp.

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