Empire of Ivory - Naomi Novik
The fourth volume in the Temeraire series has been published with auspicious timing, given that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. Temeraire's mission to liberate Britain's dragons from their semi-slave status now coincides with the other abolition movement, and even features appearances from my only famous ancestor, William Wilberforce (hurrah!). This is more backstory and setting than plot, but it provides some interesting historical colour to Lawrence and Temeraire's journey to Africa, seeking a cure for the flu-like disease that is decimating the dragon population. The French forces are not yet aware that their enemies are so incapacitated, but it can only be a matter of time; if no cure can be found, then not only will all the dragons die, but Napoleon will also have his chance to invade...
The first third of the book is largely set in England, as the extent of the crisis is shown and the backstory laid down. This was definitely my favourite part of the book, with Novik's dragon-populated world dovetailing nicely with established history. The style was a delight to read as always; Novik slips effortlessly into the Regency vernacular, and it's always fun to see Lawrence struggling with the different moral values of the Aerial Corps, and Temeraire's earnest questioning of matters such as treason and religion. Then the expedition heads south to Cape Town, and the tale gets rather less interesting; the humans fall afoul of a strong Botswanan tribe who have incorporated dragons into their ideas of ancestor-worship, making this section of the book little more than a boring routine of capture-and-escape. The ending is rather better, but the whole effect is just not convincing; you end up wondering how, if this tribe is indeed so strong and so organised, the slave trade ever managed to get a foothold at all.
As always with these divergences from actual history, it becomes harder and harder to see how this alternate-historical world ever came to look so nearly like our own, if major historical movements such as Napoleon's war and the slave trade can have their courses so easily altered. I still love reading this series, but its loosening grasp on the real world is making the premise more and more difficult to accept. The next book promises us "NAPOLEON'S INVASION OF ENGLAND!" - it will be fascinating to see how that pans out, because the Europe-based parts of this series have always been the best, but I'm hoping the tale doesn't drift too far - without the anchor in actual history, it could end up looking like just a load of fluff.