I’ve just finished reading Empire of Ivory, the fourth book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and it is delightful. It’s rare that the fourth book in a series is as thrilling as the first, but Empire of Ivory broadens the focus from the protagonists to their world, and the result is epic and majestic.
The series is bit like a cross between Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books and McAffrey’s Dragonriders, a sort of historical fantasy. If you have not read any of Novik’s Temeraire books, I strongly recommend them, but you may wish not to read this article as it contains spoilers for the first book, His Majesty’s Dragon.
In Novik’s books, the Napoleonic war is underway, as it was in our more familiar history, with an additional front: the air battle is fought by dragons. No nation’s military defence is complete without a dragon corps, and although dragons are not easy to either feed, or house, they are a military necessity, and thus England has adapted, to some extent, to co-habiting with these immense carnivores.
The stories are told from the point of view of Laurence, a gentleman of good family who holds every opinion he ought; which is to say he’s patronizing, condescending, and bigoted, but well meaning and honourable. These opinions are explicitly contrasted by Temeraire, the dragon Laurence captains. Dragons, as a breed, do not seem much impressed with anything they cannot confirm for themselves, and Temeraire’s only prejudice is his smug sense of superiority. The contrasts between Laurence’s and Temeraire’s perspective both highlights and critiques the mores of the period.
The gender roles in Novik’s world are precisely what one would expect from nineteenth century England in every sphere but one: England’s most prized breed of dragon, the Longwing, will accept only female captains. This is not widely known outside the aviators corps, and as female captains wear trousers, and no one would expect a woman to be in the military riding dragon-back, it is a secret easily kept.
However, within the aviators ranks, women enjoy something very like equality. Dragons are long lived, and captains are not, so it is the custom to pass down captaincy within the family. Every Captain is expected to produce an heir, so the women who captain dragons are given a great deal of sexual discretion.
Laurence is continually confronted with the shocking reality of women in trousers, women in authority, and sexually aggressive women. He is not so stupid he cannot acknowledge the necessity of this, but he is heavily acculturated, and constantly struggles with his chivalrous, useless, social training.
This is most evident in his dealings with Jane Roland, captain of Excidium, and mother of Emily, one of his cadets. Jane is forthright, battle-scarred, and his senior, all of which Laurence respects, and yet, he cannot quite give up the feeling that she really ought to be in skirts practising embroidery and safe from the risks of battle. Jane, of course, finds this highly comical and not at all desirable. As the story progresses, Laurence is able to see that Jane does not get the respect she deserves from the admiralty, on account of her sex, and over the course of the story, Laurence has a slow awakening to the injustices of his society.
This story is a wonderful read, and only in part because it adds women to what would otherwise be a men-only adventure. But the women sure don’t hurt.