Do you really think you can get away with that?

If you’ve ever watched TV, or movies, or read comics or books, you’ve probably encountered a rule-breaking hero or two.
This is the guy who works for the CIA, the military, the NYPD or some totally fictitious organization——but he’s definitely not an organization man. If his bosses tell him to do something he thinks is wrong, or tell him not to do something he thinks is necessary, he’s going to forge ahead, guided by his own inner compass. He may start rebelling when he gets up in the morning (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) or do it reluctantly as he realizes where justice lies (Chuck).
Almost invariably, no matter how much his bosses snarl, curse or threaten dire consequences, nothing really happens. Because he’s a series hero and if he’s fired or disbarred or whatever the penalty would be in the real world, hey, no series. So somehow, the bosses always wind up taking him back.
One reason I liked Naomi Novik’s Tongues of Serpents (and warning——herein there be spoilers) is that she’s willing to upset the apple cart and let the protagonists——Laurence and his dragon Temeraire——suffer big-time for their actions in the previous book (since I mentioned Chuck, I’ll note that series seems to have done the same at the end of the 2010/11 season)
In Victory of Eagles, a devastating disease cripples most of England’s dragons (the premise of the series is that dragons are real, and the aerial navies are part of the Napoleonic Wars), allowing Napoleon to land his troops on British soil. In the end, the good guys drive him off and the dragons are cured. The high command, however, sends a diseased dragon to France with the specific intention of wiping out the French dragons (the government looks on dragons as little more than a slave race).
Laurence and Temeraire do the honorable thing and deliver the cure to Napoleon, rather than allow the dragons to die. Their infuriared superiors aren’t willing to kill a powerful dragon and can’t do anything to Laurence (Temeraire would take that very amiss) so they transport them as disgraced felons to Australia.
Needless to say, there’s plenty to do there. They arrive in the middle of the New South Wales royal marines’ revolt (against Captain Bligh, the third mutiny he went through in his lifetime). There’s a smuggling network undermining British trade. While Australia doesn’t have dragons, it does have the formidable bunyips. And the smuggling network turns out to be the result of China breeding dragons who can fly to Australia laden with shipping goods.
But at the end of dealing with all this, Laurence and Temeraire are still stuck in Australia. I imagine they’ll get back to England eventually, but maybe not.
Another neat thing about the series is that Novik doesn’t assume her world’s history will track ours. African dragonriding tribes have made it clear they’re not going to be colonized. The Napoleonic Wars are turning out very differently (as witness Boney invading England). The Chinese trade war is clearly going to shift the global balance of power further.
I don’t know where it’ll end up (I wonder if Novik does) but I’m glad she’s playing it this way. Much as I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I could not buy that the Napoleonic War fought with magic would mirror the war in our world so faithfully. Or consider Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president in 1940, keeps us out of World War II … yet by the sixties, history is back on the “right” track (RFK and MLK both get assassinated on schedule).
Which is why I look forward to reading more stories of Temeraire.

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One response to “Do you really think you can get away with that?

  1. Pingback: Is Our Writers Learning? League of Dragons by Naomi Novik (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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