Blood of Tyrants, Naomi Novik
This is the eighth (and penultimate) book in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, but in an alternate world where dragons, domesticated for millennia, are used for aerial warfare. Temeraire is a Celestial, a rare Chinese breed that usually forms part of the Imperial household. He was intended as a gift for Napoleon, but along the way the ship transporting his egg was captured by Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy. When the egg hatched aboard the British ship, it became Laurence's duty to put the dragonet under harness, the first step in binding him to service in the Aerial Corps. This also bound Laurence himself, ending his career in the Navy with a transfer to the much-maligned Corps, which in turn estranged him from his father and ended his informal engagement. But in losing so much he gained even more in Temeraire, a dragon of rare abilities. Neither fit neatly into the Corps, however, particularly as they came to question the treatment of dragons, sentient beings asked to fight but given no rights and few rewards.
At the end of the last book, Crucible of Gold (my review is here), Laurence and Temeraire received an invitation to visit the Imperial Court in China, one they could not refuse. Since only members of the Imperial family are allowed to attach Celestial dragons, and Temeraire on a previous visit refused to be separated from Laurence, he was formally adopted by the Emperor. When this book opens, Laurence has been washed ashore in Japan, alone. He has no idea how he got there, or even who he is. When finally memories begin to surface, he remembers his name, and his rank as a captain in the Navy, but he is shocked to learn it is 1812; eight years have passed for which he cannot account. Then the story turns back to Temeraire, stranded on a disabled transport with the other dragons accompanying them. Laurence was last seen in the height of the storm that almost wrecked them, and everyone assumes he was washed overboard and lost. Refusing to believe that, Temeraire is frantic to start the search, but he cannot leave the crippled ship.
For the first few chapters, the story alternates between Laurence and the increasingly desperate dragon. Laurence is alone in a country closed to foreigners, outside the port of Nagasaki, liable to arrest and trial as a spy. When at last Temeraire locates him, just in time to rescue him, Laurence still has no memory of the dragon or their years together. Nevertheless, he agrees to continue on to the Chinese court. There he and Temeraire are caught up in imperial politics, with factions forming around heirs to the throne and a possible alliance with Britain, complicated by the illegal opium trade funded by British merchants. An unwelcome diversion comes with the news that Napoleon has invaded Russia. When the Chinese agree to send dragon divisions to help defend Russia, Temeraire and Laurence join them in flying west.
This is certainly an action-packed book, moving from Japan to China to Russia. Temeraire and Laurence are in constant danger, with attacks coming from all sides. All this is complicated of course by Laurence's amnesia. I've read complaints about this plot element, but I thought it made for an interesting story. I could also relate to it. In the old days, when a new book in a series I loved was coming out, I used re-read all the previous ones (which is why I can recite sections of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone). I rarely do that any more, which means that I don't always remember the details of the earlier books in a long series like this. I had no more idea than Will sometimes what Temeraire was talking about! But that didn't keep me from enjoying their adventures here. This is an exciting addition to a great series, perfect for fans of Patrick O'Brian (like Naomi Novik herself) and anyone who loves dragon stories. Novik does take some liberties with the history of the Napoleonic Wars (besides adding dragons to them of course), but then these are fantasy novels. This would not be a good place for a new reader to
start the series, however, building as it does on a complex backstory and bringing in many
characters from the previous books. The first book is the series, His Majesty's Dragon, is still my favorite, and a wonderful introduction to Temeraire and Laurence, and their world.