I ordered from Amazon’s UK division recently Naomi Novik‘s debut novel, Temeraire, the first book in an alternate history series that posits that alongside Nelson’s Navy and Wellingon’s Army Britain fought the Napoleonic Wars with a dragon Aerial Corps. I was impatient. I could have waited and bought the novel’s American paperback, entitled His Majesty’s Dragon, in March. But the dust jacket–a frigate, a dragon, and a map of Europe–sold me. After reading Temeraire I’m glad I didn’t wait. I loved the book. And to judge by quotes on the dust jacket, so did others.
The dust jacket offers a pull quote from no less than Stephen King, who compares the book to a cross between Susanna Clarke (author of last year’s Regency era fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and Patrick O’Brian (author of the Aubrey/Maturin series of fighting sail novels). In some sense King’s quote works, but in others it doesn’t. Derivations can be divined–I’d liken it more to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern crossed with Horatio Hornblower–but that would be to Temeraire‘s detriment. Temeraire is its own novel.
Temeraire tells the story of Will Laurence, Captain of His Majesty’s frigate Reliant, who captures a French courier ship and discovers in its hold a most precious cargo–an unhatched dragon egg. Taking the cargo aboard his ship, Laurence makes for the closest port and prepares as best he can for the egg to crack and the dragon to emerge and be harnessed. But Laurence’s plans go awry, and Laurance finds himself imprinted upon the dragon whom he names Temeraire after a British warship. (Hornblower fans will recognize the Temeraire as one of William Bush’s postings.) Temeraire divides neatly into three sections–the first shows Laurence accepting the new role he must play as partner and friend to a dragon, the second shows his training as a Captain in the Aerial Corps, and the final section throws Laurence and Temeraire into the defense of Britain as Napoleon unleashes his mighty fleet to attempt an invasion of England herself.
The characters, particularly Laurence and Temeraire, are very well drawn. Though tempting to compare Laurence to other literary Royal Navy captains–Aubrey, Bolitho, Hornblower, Ramage–Laurence isn’t simply a copy of any of them. He has Ramage’s and Bolitho’s easy familiarity with society, Hornblower’s self-doubt and self-recrimination, and Aubrey’s inspirational charm. Laurence is ideally suited to be the reader’s viewpoint on events–he is, like the reader, completely unfamiliar with life in the Aerial Corps, with living with a dragon, and the book is as much a learning experience for him as it is for the reader. Much of the conflict of the second section of the book comes from Laurence’s expectations of the Navy life and how that life simply doesn’t work in the Aerial Corps, and yet, by the end of the novel Laurence finds a kind of balance between his former Navy life and his new dragonrider life.
Good characters, like Laurence, need good foils, and Laurence has a fantastic foil in the form of Temeraire the dragon. Novik’s dragons are characters in their own right–Temeraire emerges from the shell fluent in English, insatiably curious about the world, and as the novel progresses he develops some intriguing ideas about human society, the world he experiences, and the war that becomes his life. Temeraire is well-matched to Laurence; both are outsiders to the dragonriding world–Laurence because of his background as a Navy man, Temeraire because he was born outside a dragon breeding ground–and their unusualness is part of their charm. Temeraire likes baths, something no dragon should ever want, while Laurence’s experience as a leader due to his long Navy service classes him differently than other Aerial Corps captain who lead not because of their own abilities but because their dragonrider status gives them a leg up on others.
My favorite character in the book was a smaller dragon named Levitas. He’s not particularly bright, ne’s not especially talented, but he has such an innocence about him that I couldn’t help but be drawn to him.
Novik’s writing is generally very good, a triumph of mood and expression, though sometimes her description is weak–I never got a good feel for the dragons as dragons, and even at the end I wasn’t clear on how a war dragon was laden for battle and its crew deployed on its skin. Temeraire suffers one other problem, though I suspect that the US edition, Her Majesty’s Dragon, will differ–semicolon usage was off-the-map, with one or two semi-colons per paragraph where a dash or comma would have sufficed. Punctuation was a minor problem, though, and shouldn’t detract from anyone’s reading experience.
So, Temeraire. I enjoyed the book, very much, and I greatly anticipate the second volume in the series, The Jade Throne. I don’t recommend books often, but I’ll gladly recommend Temeraire (or His Majesty’s Dragon, for American readers). Go, buy, enjoy!