At the climax of her debut novel, Naomi Novik revealed that the dragon Temeraire was the rarest kind in the world -- a Chinese Celestial.
But the discovery of the dragon's true nature comes with some pretty nasty problems attached, as William Laurence discovers in "Throne of Jade." While this book -- which is about 75% travel-by-sea -- could have been a boring slog of traveling details, Novik instead infuses it with political and cultural clashes, a creepy conspiracy on Chinese shores, and a haughty prince determined to separate Temeraire from his rider.
With the discovery of Temeraire's breed, the haughty Prince Yongxing demands that Temeraire be returned to the Imperial family -- and the bowing-scraping-groveling diplomats are inclined to obey him. But Temeraire and Laurence are having none of that. And when they can't tempt away Temeraire, both dragon and rider are sent to China on a very large boat, along with the prince and his entourage, in hopes that they can sort out the mess.
Unfortunately it's not a boring trip for Laurence, who has to dodge assassinations, storms, and the prince's ongoing quest to lure away Temeraire away from his rider. And China turns out to be no less dangerous as Laurence learns the reason that Temeraire's egg was sent to Napoleon, and the malevolent prince's true plans -- to get power for himself, using Temeraire as a pawn.
Jewel-encrusted dragons wander through gardens, streets and palaces, Englishmen wander into the ornate lands of the East, and a silent political struggle rages with Temeraire in the center. Having explored a dragon-augmented England in her debut, Naomi Novik refocuses her attention on China in "Throne of Jade." Consider Laurence a stranger in a strange land.
Most of the story is spent on a boat, which admittedly sounds boring. But Novik's intricate writing and plot twists keeps things interesting, along with her nimble sense of humour (such as Temeraire asking where human babies come from). Lots of culture clashes between the Chinese entourage and English crew, and Laurence's constant tug-of-war with Yongxing over the naive Temeraire.
And her formal style really blossoms when they get to China, lovingly describing everything from beautiful gardens to the ghostly albino Celestial. After the slow-building journey, the plot really blossoms when the ship gets to China. The conspiracies and secrets are finally figured out, and the string of assassinations and plots climaxes with a disastrous attempt at a coup.
Laurence spends this book haunted by the possibility of being separated from Temeraire, and especially worrying about Yongxing seducing him into a culture that literally worships the Celestials. Temeraire also continues to grow, learning voraciously (and developing a taste for Chinese food) while remaining steadfastly loyal to his beloved Laurence.
And there's colourful string of supporting characters: the sneering prince and his kindly brother, the toadying diplomats, and even the Celestial relatives of Temeraire's. One of them turns out to be quite a surprise.
"Throne of Jade" is an excellent follow-up to Novik's brilliant tale of draconic warfare, and a journey across Asia is no less interesting.