I’ve begun reading a series that I’d avoided until I saw Scott Sigler talk about it on GoodReads.
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik is the first of the series. It takes the idea of “what if” there were dragons during the Napoleonic Wars. We follow a Naval lieutenant who is forced through unforeseen circumstances to be partnered up with a dragon.
I’m tired of alternate histories. I’m tired of dragons. I never cared much for the Napoleonic war. So you may understand why I was avoiding the books. The part that made me sample the book, however, was Sigler saying that the author tells the story absolutely from the 18th century sensibility that the people would have had back then. Because another thing I’m tired of is people using alternate histories to push their own ideas of how our swingin’ modern times would’ve made everything better if only they’d have been more enlightened in the past.
Novik perfectly juggles all those elements while telling a great adventure story. The dragon part is handled really well (no telepathy, for example). Though they can talk it isn’t weird. They just become characters.
The idea of how air battles would have changed the war is interesting. (Not that I know about that particular war, but I can tell things are being changed around.) I also really like the ingenuity shown in having the dragons not only fight but carry their crew, who have rifles and bombs to do their own damage. I admit, I tend to skim the battle scenes but there is plenty to read about besides the war.
Novik is not only good at historical realism but she has logically extended the concept of how dragons would change things in a lot of directions. For example there are all sorts of dragons from small to huge, stupid to smart, pleasant to cunning. Different breeds of dragons have different skills, many of which reflect bits of our folk stories about dragons.
As our heroes travel on diplomatic journeys and get caught up in battles, we see that the ways the dragons are treated reflects the societies they encounter. Novik’s got the British Empire to work with and she uses it to good purpose.
Best of all is the relationship between Captain Laurence and Temeraire. It allows the author to explore ideas and society as the experienced naval captain is forced to learn the ropes in the Aerial Corps and also explain the world to his quickly growing young dragon partner. We learn to love both of them.
Plus Novik is just darned good at writing exciting yarns.
The library has these available as ebooks and I’ve been tossing them back like popcorn. There are eight books in the series, with seven published and the last one due out next year.
Captain Laurence of the HMS Reliant captures a French frigate which has an unexpected treasure aboard: an unhatched dragon egg. You don’t even need to guess who the dragonet picks for his partner,. We knew that going in.
Laurence is removed from his orderly naval career and thrust into the Aerial Corps to learn airborne battle. Just how flexible is Laurence? Because these airboys aren’t much good with formality. Good thing he’s got Temeraire which more than makes up for anything he suffers.
Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
Laurence and Temeraire are part of a diplomatic mission the court of the Chinese emperor. Huzzah! China (and Chinese dragons) in 1800. It’s hard to get more exotic than that. And a nemesis is acquired.
On the way, Temeraire is exposed to human slavery and this takes his philosophical musings on an unexpected path which opens up the whole abolition conversation, which was in full swing in Great Britain at the time. Very interesting.
On the way back from China, Laurence and Temeraire are ordered to swing through the Ottoman Empire to pick up some unhatched dragon eggs to bring home to Britain. The Silk Road! Istanbul (harems!).
On the road back through Prussia, they are diverted to help with the war and for the first time I enjoyed reading the battle scenes. Maybe it’s because I have a crush on the King and Queen. Can they be my rulers?
Of course, the nemesis is wreaking as much trouble as possible. Grrrrr.
In the heart of deepest Africa Novik flirts delightfully with the shades of H. Rider Haggard and Zulu. That’s the middle of the story, however, with the beginning and end solidly holding down the Napoleonic war setting.
By this point in the series the abolitionist movement is as much of a theme as the Napoleonic threat. What makes an individual a person instead of a thing just can’t be avoided (as my beloved Uncle Tom’s Cabin reminds us). I read a review where someone remarked that Novik “like all modern authors” couldn’t resist including 1960s style civil rights topics. To read the book this way is to do a real injustice to the actual history of the abolition movement in England.
Novik does explore the topic from a range of views, which is something the dragons allows most interestingly since most people believe them to be something like well trained dogs. But it is well done and adds some needed depth to the story, in my opinion.