Imagine how world history might have changed if aerial combat had been invented in the early nineteenth century — by troops deployed on the backs of dragons. That's the premise of Naomi Novik's popular Temeraire series, where the Napoleonic Wars are fought in part with dragons and the balance of power is forever changed.
Crucible of Gold is the seventh novel in the series, and it takes us deep into the alternate history of South America. The setting is incredible, and Novik's style has grown even more delightfully anachronistic. And once again the action goes far beyond conflict between the British and the French; ultimately, this novel is as much about political relations between Europe, Africa, and even China as it is a novel of war.
We begin in Australia, where Laurence and Temeraire have settled after their expulsion from the Aerial Corps. The unctuous diplomat Hammond, whom they first met in China, has come to Australia to offer Laurence his Captaincy back if he'll agree to aid Britain in a desperate mission to Brazil. Their hope is to prevent Napoleon from gaining more allies among the great empires of South America — and to negotiate with the Tswana, an African nation that Napoleon has aided in a quest to bring their enslaved brethren back home from Brazil.
We've got the kind of complex political brew that Novik loves to explore here, and she's in top form when our crew first arrives in Inca-controlled territory. We're treated to an alternate history where Cuzco never fell, and Pizarro met ignominious defeat at the claws of the Inca dragons. Basically this is heroin for alternate history buffs, and you can expect to be awed and amused by turns.
Once the actual battle lines are drawn, however, the novel begins to feel more mechanical than joyful. Crucible of Gold offers little compelling human drama, nor dragon drama, despite several opportunities. There are startling romantic revelations, budding romances between humans (and dragons), but nothing about them feels compelling or vital. The same goes for the characters we'd expect to feel soul-charring wrath for each other. Laurence has become practically an automaton, whose feelings extend to honor and shame but little more.
Though it lacks emotional heft, the novel is still a fun adventure, full of whimsical touches and compelling worldbuilding. If you're already a Temeraire fan, this will be a welcome treat. If you're new to Novik's series, however, you'd do best to start with her first book, His Majesty's Dragon. Crucible of Gold definitely requires readers to know the backstory on a lot of returning characters. Let's hope that in Novik's next book, these characters will be given full-fledged emotional lives again.
Illustration by Daniel Govar