[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 39 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]
The Deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea; a stroke might as easily bring down the man making it as the intended target. Laurence did not have time in the heat of the battle to be surprised at the degree of resistance, but even through the numbing haze of battle-fever and the confusion of swords and pistol-smoke, he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain’s face as the man shouted encouragement to his men.
That’s the first paragraph of His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. In the midst of reading lots of current books for awards season, I decided I needed two things: a break and dragons. I enjoyed Novik’s novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver, and I’d heard good things about her Temeraire series.
Those good things proved true.
The briefest description of this book could be “Napoleonic war with dragons” because that’s exactly what it is. It’s an alternate history in which dragons exist on Earth and have been bred and used in warfare for hundreds of years. I generally don’t care for alternate history, but I really really like dragons, so I decided to give this a shot. I’m glad I did because I quite like these dragons. There are many breeds of differing size and capabilities. Some breathe fire, others acid, and all of them are deadly in the art of aerial warfare.
The dragon at the centre of this book is named Temeraire, and he enters the story shortly after the battle described in the first paragraph. The British captain, Laurence, discovers the French frigate he captured was carrying a large dragon egg. That egg is now England’s. But there’s a big complication: it will hatch weeks before they can get back to land. This presents a problem, as the Aerial Corps is a very different branch of the armed forces. Dragon aviators are trained from youth; they’re a group apart, and as such, they’re looked down upon by pretty much everyone else (not only the military, but society at large). The officers must draw lots to see who will attempt to harness the dragonet. In the event, the dragon bonds with Laurence, which means he must leave the navy and everything and everyone he knows to train for a totally new type of military profession.
I enjoy a good fish-out-of-water story (and I’m not talking about Temeraire fishing for his supper until they can reach dry land). Laurence is an officer and a gentleman and his struggle to acclimate to the much-more-relaxed and informal and wrinkled world of the Aerial Corps makes for an entertaining and engrossing read. This is easily the part of the book I liked best (besides the dragons themselves, of course).
I appreciate the thought Novik gave to just how dragons would be integrated (or not integrated) into society and warfare—though it’s the society angle that gripped me most. It reminded me a lot of Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series in that the dragons and their crews provide a valuable service, but most of society looks askance at them. Also, dragons are able to speak immediately and bond with their riders upon hatching, though it’s not the same type of deep, telepathic bond as in McCaffery’s books—these dragons can (and do) take new riders when required. Another similarity: a certain type of dragon only bonds with women, which is a nifty way of working in some modern gender politics. Well-respected and easily-accepted female captains are just as awesome as the dragons are and, compared to the contemporary society, feel just about as fictional.
Speaking of contemporary society, the language in this book feels like a throw-back to that time. It is very formal and occasionally florid. I’m impressed by Novik’s ability to write in this voice while still keeping it accessible to a modern reader like me (someone who doesn’t always go in for period-style writing). Though I will admit the stiff formality of the language and phrasing did slow me down a little bit. It was a minor, added layer of difficulty that I mostly didn’t mind overcoming in order to get through the story.
The bigger obstacle for me was the fact that in the end, this is a war novel. I enjoyed the beginning of the book much more than the latter bits. I liked watching Laurence learn the ropes and deepen his friendship with Temeraire, but eventually they’ve been trained, and it’s time to go into battle. Even in visual media, battle sequences bore me, so while the battles were well-conceived and well-written, I found myself drifting as I read them. I’m not certain I’ll continue on with Throne of Jade (the next book in the series), because I suspect the subsequent books may be even more war-novelly than His Majesty’s Dragon. That said, I am glad I picked up this one and made the acquaintance of these lovely dragons.