This is the second book in the alternate history series about Temeraire, the dragon captured as an egg from the French and inadvertently hatched at sea and induced into captivity by the ship's captain, Will Laurence. Where the first book focused on Temeraire's growth and training as a part of the Aerial Corps, engaged in fighting the French during the Napoleonic wars, this book is about his personal history. For it turns out that Temeraire is a rare Chinese Celestial dragon, the egg was sent as a gift to Napoleon, and the Chinese are not happy about him being deployed in the war, ridden by a mere naval officer, and want him back. Relations with the Chinese are delicate, so Temeraire and Laurence are packed off to Peking to negotiate some kind of deal.
This book has the same characteristics as the first, being more about the formality of language and manners than action. There are some quite dramatic encounters, but these episodes are brief. The highlight for me is, as before, Temeraire himself, who is by far the most interesting character in the book. He has a refreshingly straightforward attitude to life, and time after time Laurence is forced to attempt to justify his own society's customs and morals against Temeraire's much more liberal ideas. These discussions are fascinating - Laurence is a product of his own era of history, and there are many ideas which he accepts without thinking, and others where he has absorbed his family's somewhat different ideas (he is against slavery, for instance, even though it is still legal in Britain). For instance, it is fascinating to juxtapose Temeraire's instinctive feeling that it is wrong to flog or hang a man, with the obvious need to maintain discipline aboard ship. The Chinese have very different ways of treating dragons, too, and Laurence is forced to acknowledge, against his natural feeling, that they do some things better than the west.
I have no idea how accurate the depiction of Chinese life of the era is, or whether the author has taken liberties, but it all seemed very plausible to me. There were some fascinating details, for instance the ceremony on board ship when crossing the equator, which the author mentions in passing without going into much detail. Both the Chinese delegation and Temeraire himself are mystified by the whole thing, but the author resists the temptation to info-dump all her research on the subject, writing as if we were of the period and would naturally know all about it. I rather like this minimalist approach, which suits the book very well, giving it almost an authentic air of having been written in 1806.
This is actually a thought-provoking book in many ways, addressing a number of ideas head on, such as slavery versus voluntary service, and others less directly, such as the absolute will of an emperor versus the democratic monarchy system prevailing in Britain. It’s not a high-action book, although there are episodes of drama, but in some cases they feel rather bolted on as an afterthought to ramp up the tension. However, the tension between the British and the Chinese is nicely done, and the slow but definite way in which the barriers begin to dissolve and the two sides inch their way towards an understanding is beautifully described. In the end, everything hinges on trust, or the lack of it, and the resolution is both frighteningly dramatic and ultimately very satisfying. Once again, I enjoyed this book unreservedly, and although it wouldn’t suit everyone, for me it’s another five star affair. I’m almost nervous to read any further in the series in case this high standard comes crashing down. Can any author sustain the ideas and this level of writing for nine books? It’s hard to imagine.