If there’s two things I’ve come to dislike equally, it’s bad fantasies with dragon characters (cough Eragon) and bad speculative fiction that recreates Horatio Hornblower or other Napoleonic-era stories (cough David Weber). So I really thought there was no way I could possibly enjoy Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels, which are about Napoleonic-era dragons and their riders.
When I finally did give the series a try, I was really surprised at how entertaining the books are. It’s a real credit to Novik that she takes themes that have become hideously cliched and somehow still makes them work as entertaining genre fiction.
However, I found it kind of difficult to bend my head around some of the twists in the latest book, Empire of Ivory. I was really pleased to see the series take off into early 19th Century Africa, something that seemed possible after the prominent mention of the Atlantic slave trade and abolitionism in the previous volume. But the way Novik plays out the story introduces a strange asymmetry into her alternate fantasy-history, one that illustrates nicely why historians writing counterfactuals tend to give the “grand narratives” of modern history a wide pass in favor of dealing with battles and specific episodes.
The first two books in the series stay fairly tightly focused on a conventionally Napoleonic scenario with dragons added in. England’s military power is still primarily naval, Napoleon’s strength is in his army. England’s society is very much as it is normally pictured in fictions about the late 18th Century, with the interesting twist that the officers in the dragon-based Aerial Corps are sexually egalitarian and far looser in their manners and practices than the rest of the gentry. (This isn’t as imitative of McCaffrey’s Pernese weyrs as it sounds.)
By the third book of the series, we learn that there is an Atlantic slave trade, and that Wilberforce and others (including the estranged family of the series’ lead character) are engaged in trying to abolish it. We’ve also seen a detailed look at China, where the dragons are much more respectfully integrated into human social hierarchies as intelligent beings in their own right, which in turn gives the main dragon character, Temeraire, some new ideas about equality that he intends to take home to England. There’s a fairly extended glimpse of the Ottoman Empire and its dragons as well, in which they’re mostly portrayed as part of the closed social world of the Ottoman court. We get a look at Central Europe as well, which is pretty much the Central Europe of the Napoleonic era with dragons and a few flourishes added.
However, some things are already becoming confusing about the alternate history that Novik is sketching out. Namely, where are the slaves taken in the Atlantic slave trade going to? There aren’t European colonies in the Americas: it’s specifically mentioned that American societies with their own dragons prevented European attempts at conquest. There doesn’t seem to be a widespread presence of African slaves doing labor within Europe itself. It could be that there are still colonies in the Caribbean and various eastern Atlantic islands, but it’s not very clear.
This is where a comprehensive counterfactual like these novels starts to become like a game of pick-up sticks: pull too hard on one thing and everything begins to collapse in a way that simply saying “it’s fantasy” can’t quite save it. Not only is it hard to see how there could be an Atlantic slave trade without extensive European involvement in the Americas, it’s hard to see why Novik’s Britain and France are so recognizably “normal” to the Napoleonic genre. Why does Britain have such a large navy, if not for the Atlantic economy? Was there a French Revolution before Napoleon? If so, why does Temeraire have to go all the way to China and Africa to encounter a radical discourse about the equality of thinking beings? (I was almost thinking the fourth volume of this series would set Temeraire up as a part of the Scottish Enlightenment. I grant you it wouldn’t exactly be a thrill-a-minute scenario to have a dragon just hanging around with Adam Smith, Edmund Burke or Jeremy Bentham, but a historian can dream.)
When Novik takes the characters off to South Africa in search of a cure for a dragon plague that has infected most of Britain’s Aerial Corps in the fourth volume, things get a bit more off-kilter. The interior of the continent is thought by the European characters to be inhabited by dangerous “ferals”, dragons without human companions, who kill any explorer or traveller. But when they find a mushroom that cures the plague, they run into a powerful African society that is pretty an even partnership between dragons and humans, with the dragons imagined as ancestral spirits by their human compatriots. I was really confused when the African characters had names drawn from all over southern African history with a major settlement right at Victoria Falls until I skipped to the end, where Novik sets out some details of her alternate history. She posits a dragon-human “Sotho-Tswana Empire” that stretches over most of interior southern Africa. It apparently doesn’t go any further than present-day central Zambia as the Sotho-Tswana characters refer to a Lunda character as an enemy (and a slave trader).
This is fine, though the significant historical divergence required to create this alternate history is somehow very asymmetrical to the very “normal” history of Western Europe in the books. Where it gets weird is when the powerful Sotho-Tswana decide to strike back against the Atlantic slave trade (in part because the British characters bring an emancipated slave woman who is working with the abolitionists along with them, and she turns out to have been taken from the Sotho-Tswana). This is already kind of a significant shift, because southern Africa was the one major region of the continent that was relatively insulated from the Atlantic slave trade, and the precolonial Lunda state had almost nothing to do with the slave trade. The Sotho-Tswana attack and destroy the British settlement at Cape Town as retaliation for the slave trade. So far so good. Then they attack Portuguese settlements in Angola and Congo and destroy those. Still plausible.
Then they attack Cape Coast Castle in West Africa and destroy that. Presumably if they can do that, they destroy any other West Africa slave-trading ports, though others go unmentioned.
Now I have a problem. Novik has tried so hard to make one region of Africa to have a historically concrete character, but to do it, she makes the rest into blank darkness. The only thing we hear is that the states of West Africa, whatever they are, neither impeded the Sotho-Tswana attacks nor did they contest the Atlantic slave trade.
Now, this is a series in which the main human and dragon characters have flown from China to the Ottoman Empire to Prussia and thence back to England. Long flights aren’t implausible for these dragons. But that was an epic journey that took up much of the third book, and was filled with logistical and political challenges. Suddenly we’ve got a force of African dragons who just take off from the area around Victoria Falls and fly all the way to West Africa in force, impeded by nothing in between, and then demolish European ports. This raises tons of questions. Why were Europeans able to establish slave-trading in the first place? Why did it take the Sotho-Tswana a century or more to retaliate? If the Lunda Empire is a slave-trading state with sufficient power (apparently) to resist the Sotho-Tswana, then how is it that the Sotho-Tswana are able to just fly happily right over their territory on their way to West Africa? What about the historic states of West Africa? None of them have dragons, and all of them accepted the slave trade? Does Novik have any idea how far away Cape Coast Castle is from Victoria Falls, by the way? If the Sotho-Tswana can fly to Cape Coast Castle, they sure as hell can fly to Arabia, Turkey, India, and Western Europe. Why didn’t they before now?
This is always a problem with alternate history, whether it stays close to human reality or interjects major fantasy elements. The more consistent its alternative vision gets, the less recognizable to history as we know it, and therefore the expositionary burden on the author grows and grows. But keeping some things very tightly fixed on history as we know it and allowing other things to shift fancifully is equally messy. It shows just how hard it is to rewrite our imagination of history in a truly globalized or open manner. Even in fantasy, it’s tough to provincialize Europe.