Black Powder War is the third novel in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, following the adventures of the eponymous dragon and his 'Captain', Lawrence, during the Napoleonic Wars of an alternative 19th Century where dragons are real and live, mostly, in harmony with mankind.
Along with the two books that proceed it, Temeraire (aka His Majesty's Dragon) and Throne of Jade, Black Powder War is the latest episode of an ongoing story. As such it is not the place for uninitiated readers to start. Go read Temeraire and Throne of Jade. Both are wonderful, evocative and exciting adventure novels bursting with great ideas.
For those already familiar with Temeraire and his adventures to date the question will be 'is Black Powder War as good as the books that proceeded it?'. The answer is....not quite.
Don't misunderstand me; this is still a wonderfully enjoyable book and deserving of four stars. What it doesn't do however, is quite measure up to its predecessors and this is due, mostly to issues of plotting.
With both previous Temeraire novels there was a sense of self-containment, even if they were just episodes in an onging saga. With Black Powder War by contrast, the episodic feeling is definitely to the fore and the book feels more like a transitionary tale rather than a self contained story. Mostly this is down to the story being split into very distinct halves; the first covering Temeraire's journey overland through Asia from China and the second his involvement with Napoleon's Eastern Campaign against the Prussians. Whilst both halves are related it is only loosely and they feel like two separate episodes rather than parts of a uniform whole.
The episodic feel continues through the narrative of the second half of the book, which is far busier this time, with multiple 'real life' battles & other events to contend with. Consequently it jumps around in an effort to keep events moving on at a pace. The transitionary nature of the book is then reinforced by an ending which, although unexpected and interesting, is very much open-ended.
All this results in a book that is less satisfying that either of Temeraire's earlier adventures. Its flaws aren't great enough however, to detract greatly from its strengths. As with the two previous books pimary amongst these is characterisation, with all of the principles from Temeraire, to Lawrence and on to the other members of his crew developing further as interesting individuals. Even the supporting cast, from Prussian Officers to members of the Turkish Sultan's Court to a bunch of fantastic feral mountain dragons are provided with depth so that they don't merely become dramatic devices there to service the plot.
A plot that as mentioned previously is far more complex than the previous efforts, especially in the latter half. Whilst the early stages dealing with the land crossing from China and an enforced stay in Turkey are relatively simple, linear affairs, once Temeraire and his crew cross into Austria and then head north towards Prussia things become far more complicated. Drawn back into the Napoleonic War, both Dragon and author must navigate the constantly shifting fortunes of war. For Temeraire and his crew this is difficult enough so far from home. For Novik it is a larger challenge. Whereas in previous novels she was free to invent her own narrative here she must craft fiction around real military events whilst keeping the reader's attention and understanding. That she does a credible job of both is a testament to her talent as a writer.
That she also manages to include new details of the world she has created amongst the constantly shifting narrative is also a great acheivement. This is another of the series strengths and she doesn't forget it, introducing new concepts such as feral dragons whilst making them seem utterly normal and conceiving further differences in cultural attitudes towards dragons for the Prussians and the Ottomans. It is such incidental details that gives all three books such a feeling of depth and grounds the reality that Novik has created.
It is also one of the many reasons why I am looking forward to the next episode of Temeraire and Lawrence's adventures. Whilst Black Powder War might feel like a bridging episode, moving the story along but not reaching any specific turning point, it hasn't lessened my enjoyment of the series as a whole. Whilst not as satisfying by itself as either of the earlier stories it has however, served its purpose by starting new interesting plot strands and further expanding the Draconian world. Roll on Autumn 07 when Temeraire will fly again.