Crucible of Gold (Ballantine, 2012; editor: Betsy Mitchell) is the seventh in Naomi Novik's consistently high-quality Temeraire series, following 2010's Tongues of Serpents, and delivers yet another intriguing alternate-history-with-dragons tale that kept me up half the night reading.
At this point Novik seems to have a three-pronged agenda: moving the Napoleonic Wars slowly forward, exploring different cultures with various dragon-human relationship models, and engaging with the growing anti-slavery movement. Crucible of Gold hits all the bases by taking the Celestial dragon Temeraire and his companion Laurence to South America, where Napoleon has stirred up trouble by mobilizing a transatlantic fleet of dragon transports to help the African dragons and humans of the Tswana culture (introduced in the fourth novel, Empire of Ivory) recover their kinfolk who were taken as slaves. This conveniently threatens the Portuguese colonists in Brazil as France occupies the Iberian Peninsula.
Seen as the best possibility for negotiating with the Tswana, Laurence and Temeraire are pulled from a disgraced retirement in a far corner of Australia, reinstated in the Aerial Corps, and shipped off via the transport commanded by Laurence's former subordinate Riley, with whom he has an increasingly rocky relationship due to their opposing positions on slavery. Accompanying them are the ever-frisky fire-breather Iskierka and her put-upon Captain Granby, unhappily resisting the near-uncontrollable Iskierka's twin desires to drape him in finery and to find him a wife; the unusual crossbreed Kulingile and his African handler Demane, whom prejudice has denied a Captaincy in the Aerial Corps; and the teenaged midwingman Emily Roland, restored to Temeraire's crew and now presenting the ever-proper Lawrence with a social problem, which he addresses by engaging a respectable female chaperone, much to the dismay of the independent Emily.
When disaster brings the party ashore in the powerful Incan Empire, they find themselves immersed in yet another variation on dragon/human culture, in which the dragon rulers hold the humans as chattel, a pointed reversal of the state of affairs in England, and one which has substantial appeal for the naturally possessive Temeraire. The French are meddling here as well, and the relationship between the Incan dragons and humans is far more complex than it appears at first glance.
Despite some exciting seaborne adventure early on, this is primarily an exploration story spiced with international politics and thoughtful points about slavery, gender, and dragon/human relationships. The distinctively-characterized group of dragons with their particular priorities provide a constantly entertaining counterpoint to the human politics. While this latest may not satisfy people looking for more of the first book's Hornblower-with-dragons, I am more fascinated by culture than warfare, overall, so this series is working out very well for me. I'm enjoying the world travels and the ever-increasing tension between ethics and loyalty for Laurence as the ostensible good guys (the British) look worse and worse against the clever French, now positioned, cynically or otherwise, on the pro-dragon-equality and anti-slavery side of things.
I've no idea how Novik is going to get out of this interesting tangle, but the next book appears to be set to send the pair back to China, the international model for dragon-human equality and England's last hope of a strong ally in an increasingly hostile world.
I highly recommend Crucible of Gold, with the caveat that it really ought to be read in proper sequence with the rest of the series (start here) for the fullest appreciation and emotional impact.
Read for yourself: