Late to the party again. Very late. Naomi Novik‘s Temeraire series has been floating around in the circles I pay attention to this year. Because it’s on book seven. Whoops. Missed that boat. But remember how I was over at The Bookbarn, the most epic used book store ever? Well I found a copy of the first book, His Majesty’s Dragon. It actually surprised me to find it there. This book is from oh-six which isn’t brandy new, but more recent SF books don’t show up in the used stacks so often. So upon seeing this and knowing that there must be some good things going on if it’s up to book seven, I snatched it up.
I am way late to this party, but it’s a party I’m glad I showed up to.
Back of the book time!
Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies … not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons.
When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes it’s precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarefied world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.
So this book sounds like it should be regency dragon knights. We’ve got the right time period and all the right ingredients. Novik doesn’t even let this idea take hold before it’s properly shown the door. Dragon warfare has more of an WWI aviator feel combined with Age of Sail ship to ship combat. Dragon captains are like those aviation duelists who took to the skies in flimsy bi-wings to have at it with the Red Baron. It’s a special attitude they’ve got to have to manage with this style of warfare and although the term ‘flyboy’ is never used due to period accurate language (and women captains), it’s a term that fits with all its connotations of swagger and cockiness. If the attitude seems out of place in Napoleonic era Europe, well it is. Laurence is a sea captain on page one with all the period norms in terms of honor and attitude of a ‘proper gentleman.’ The book being from the point of view of the outsider, it gives Novik the opportunity to examine the Aerial Corps society in a way that is beneficial to the reader. We’re shown exactly how it isn’t normal and are gradually brought into the fold with Laurence. Toward the end of Dragon, the captains go off to a London society gathering and it’s all of a sudden very jarring for reader and characters to be back where we were once comfortable. Very well done.
What I think of as the most unique aspect of Dragon, though, is the interaction between the dragons and captains. Keeping as far away from the dragon knight as possible, the dragons are more like familiars to their people. Or at least to start with. In order to be ‘tamed,’ they bond with a person right out of the shell. Dragons can and do reject any other people trying to bond with them. The dragon and their handler become more like partners as they grow together. All of the dragons can talk right from the shell which was a pleasant surprise in chapter one (or two… Act one. yeah, we’ll go with act one). Temeraire is a particularly bright dragon and absorbs knowledge like a sponge. A lot of the best dialogue in the book is between Laurence and Temeraire. The supporting cast of dragons all have their own personalities too.
My critique on Dragon is that it falls into some Book One Problems. Knowing there are six more books published and two more on the way mitigates a lot of these. As a reader you pick up a different set of expectations and point of view when you know you’re diving into 3000 pages of story rather than 300. It was noticeable enough to me that at the halfway point of the book I stopped and thought “Where’s the meat and potatoes of this going to come in?” The action was very minimal until the third act. I’m not an action junkie and Dragon provided plenty of narrative ups and downs along the way, but when you’ve got a book about a military unit in the middle of a contenent spanning war, get me some action. Because of the 3000+ pages total across the whole series, Dragon spends a lot of time in the “Getting to know you” phase between Laurence and Temeraire and their comrades. So while I ended up very pleased with the book in the end, I was itching for some more aerial combat.
But when we did get to the combat, oh my. Remember how I mentioned two paragraphs ago how Dragon is WWI aviators crossed with Age of Sail ship combat? It works way better than you’d think. As an experiences and sometimes jaded reader when it comes to fantasy and the dragons that inhabit it, I am very pleased to say that this takes things on in a completely unique way I had never seen before. That’s very hard to do. Temeraire and some of the breeds of dragons are large enough that they have full crews harnessed in them. So not only do we have a dragon tearing into battle with claws and teeth (some with spitting acid!), they’ve also got two dozen sharpshooters strapped to them. There are some more parts of dragon combat that I really want to squee about, but I don’t want to ruin anything. Suffice to say, the Aerial Corps have a lot of cool moves going on.
So His Majesty’s Dragon has hooked me completely. I think the book stands alone enough. There’s a set up for the future but no cliffhanger. If I was reading this brandy new, there would be no frothing rage at having to wait a year for the next installment or frustration of having to go back and reread the first in order to understand the second. That’s exactly how series installments should work. I still have to stress to maximize enjoyment out of this, keep it in the back of your mind that this is still part of a sprawling epic and isn’t going to go sprinting out of the gate.