His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's Dragon: A Novel of Temeraire by Naomi Novik - a black dragon wrapped around a picture of a naval sailing ship hangs in front of a red and black background

[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.

Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Love and Romanpunk (Twelve Planets Book 2) by Tansy Rayner Roberts - the faint image of a Roman coin and a dagger appear on a purple background

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 24 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius. Instead, I drove a stake through his heart.

That’s the first paragraph of Love and Romanpunk, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Before we dive in, let’s get the full disclosure out of the way. Tansy is one of my cohosts on our Doctor Who podcast Verity!, and I do consider her a friend (despite never having met her in the non-internet world). Australia is Very Far Away.

Australia is also where part of this book is set, but not the first part. Love and Romanpunk is made up of four connected short stories that take place in four distinct places and times, but they have a strong thread of Romans and monsters (and Roman monsters) running through them to connect the events throughout history. Speaking of history, Tansy has a PhD in Roman history, so when it comes to ancient Rome, she knows her stuff. I love twisted history, and I love it most when it’s written by someone who knows it and loves it inside and out.

The first story is the most Roman of the bunch. It starts with a bestiary: “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, a glossary of monsters that is one of the most clever parts of a very clever book. It educates the reader about the types of monsters one might encounter later, and it simultaneously tells its own story, which is deftly woven into the alphabetical entries. I was skeptical at first because that kind of structured storytelling doesn’t always land for me, but by the end of it I wanted to stand up and applaud.

The rest of this first story is a first-person account of the secret history of the Caesars, written by Julia Agrippina, badass sister of Caligula, mother of Nero, and neice-wife of Claudius. It has a particular focus on the Julias of the family. It’s something special to be a Julia, you see. The introductory glossary makes it pretty clear that *this* Rome is populated by both humans and monsters (and some who are a bit of both). This section tells you who were the monsters and what kinds of monsters they were.

Then we cut to hundreds of years later for the next story, “Lamia Victoriana”, which is told from the POV of Mary Shelly’s sister, Fanny, who is beguiled by the sister of the poet Mary is in love with. Read carefully—it may not be the poet you expect. The poet and his sister are certainly not *what* you expect. Or at least not what Fanny expects. I’ll say this, the way Fanny handles the situation is not what *I* expected!

The result of her handling things leads to the next story, “The Patrician”, which takes place in the aforementioned Australia, in what seems to be just beyond present day. Someone has built a Roman “theme city”, Nova Ostia, complete with actual stones shipped from Rome. That may sound pretty neat and authentic, but apparently authentic Roman stones are basically monster magnets, as Clea Majora discovers. She lives and works in Nova Ostia and serves as our POV character for this section. I’d love to tell you about the person she meets, but I, as a reader, am not terribly quick on the uptake so it took me by delightful surprise. I’d hate to spoil that for anyone who reads this book (and I hope you do!).

The final story, “Last of the Romanpunks”, takes place in an airship, so I pretty much *had* to review this book on The Incomparable Network. It’s a “Romanpunk” airship that’s a travelling Roman-themed bar, complete with togas and spiced, watered wine. This time we see events from the POV of Clea’s grandson Sebastian, who is all grown up and knows his grandmother’s history as a monster-hunter. He thinks that stuff is all in the past. OR IS IT? Yeah. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s NOT.

My favourite thing about Tansy’s writing is that it is whip-smart and crackingly clever while also being dangerously easy to read. Her stuff is not so much “I don’t want to put it down” as it is “Where the hell did the time go?”

And because this subject is so firmly in her wheelhouse, these stories feel confident and fun, and I really enjoyed the ride. I’ll close with something Tansy says in the Afterword: “I believe that if everyone who ever wrote an academic thesis followed it up with a tasty piece of fiction that is the literary equivalent of spraying offensive graffiti tags all over their area of expertise, the world would be a better place.”