LEAGUE OF DRAGONS (cover illustration by Craig Howell, all rights to current holder) is Naomi Novik’s final Temeraire book, which is frustrating—not that I can’t live with the series ending, but it feels like it needs another book to wrap things up right. I’m spoiling a lot, so be warned.
The story: When we left Laurence and Temeraire in Blood of Tyrants, Napoleon was advancing into Russia. When League opens, it’s over and Napoleon is retreating into France (I had to go back and reread the end of the previous book to confirm I hadn’t misremembered). England and her allies would like to take the fight to him, but there are obstacles, such as Bonaparte offering dragonkind an alliance in which they divide up all the world but France among themselves (which strikes me as a parody of European imperialism). Then it turns out Bonaparte’s dragon Lien has stolen Temeraire’s egg, which forces Laurence and Temeraire to surrender to Napoleon. Can they escape and rejoin the fight? Can they win dragons enough legal rights to counter Napoleon’s offer of the world? Will Laurence ever regain his honor after events in Victory of Eagles and Tongues of Serpents?
WHAT I LEARNED: And while I’m a long way from a multi-book series, I think a lot of this is applicable to any narrative arc
Last-Minute Twists Are Good, Sometimes. Having Lien kidnap Temeraire’s egg to force him and Laurence to surrender is a great surprise, that gives the good guys extra objectives as we move to the finish. Napoleon’s proposal for the title league (though not named that) is even better because it fits into the series’ running theme about dragon/human relations. On the other hand, the twist that brings about Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, while plausible, has zero set up.
Throwing in extra plot threads is not so good. When Temeraire’s egg hatches, we meet Ning, the dragon inside. He spends the whole book equivocating about which side to join and ends equivocating. Which is fine for characterization but for a character introduced so close to the big finish, I expect some sort of pay off, and there isn’t one. There’s also a section early in the book in which Laurence is injured in a duel and gets nursed back to health by a beautiful Pole, who must then choose between two rival suitors. We never see her or the sleazy Russian duellist (he cheats) again, so it feels more like a dead end. The mutinous captains serving under Laurence also go unresolved, though that’s forgivable — they tie in to the plot more (they despise Laurence for some past actions) and Laurence emphasizes he has no good way to deal with them. And then there’s the ending scene in which Laurence learns what happened to the fiancee he had to abandon early in the series—such a minor character I barely remember her, and don’t really care that she’s happy.
You don’t have to resolve everything, but it helps: The main story arcs get wrapped up. Napoleon and Lien are exiled to St. Helena, dragons win their legal rights and Laurence regains his honor and retires with Temeraire. Emotionally, though, it falls flat. Laurence ends unsure of what he and Temeraire will do or where they’ll go, and that’s not enough: I want to know that after everything he’s done, he’s happy, not just resigned. Other characters just fade away or get mentioned in passing and some fans were upset Lien, as one of the archvillains, doesn’t get a final showdown with Temeraire (especially after stealing his egg which is a fell deed among dragons). I’d sooner have had a stronger resolution for Emily Rowland and her lover than learn what happened to Laurence’s ex. And the political machinations that give dragons their rights deserved much more space too. Like I said, it seems there needs to be another book to give real closure.
All of this was of particular use to me as I’m dealing with the same thing, sort of, in Southern Discomfort: I’ve lots of characters affected by events and it’s been an effort to figure which ones need a resolution or to play an active role in the big finish. Reading League doesn’t tell me how to decide, but it confirms the choice is important.