I first heard about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series when reading through the list of upcoming books and authors to watch in Locus magazine. (By the way, if you are at all interested in trying your hand at SF or Fantasy, Locus is a must-read for you; you can subscribe online at their website here.) It’s premise of a Napoleonic period with dragons immediately captured my attention. The addition of naval elements cemented the deal, and I went down to my local bookstore to buy the first book in the series, His Majesty’s Dragon. What a great debut novel this is.
(Note: The original title of this novel was Temeraire, which remains the title in the UK and some other territories. The American publishers decided to go with His Majesty’s Dragon both to address the British focus of the novel (it’s always good to mention royalty), and to be a little less obscure (very few people outside of naval historians have heard of the HMS Temeraire.)
The novel begins in the early years of the Napoleonic wars. Captain Will Laurence’s ship, HMS Reliant, has just taken a French ship, under-gunned and undermanned. Inside the prize is another, greater prize: a dragon egg. It is a fine specimen, large and already hardened, meaning it is about to hatch. Once it does, the dragon chooses Laurence as his Captain, throwing everything into disarray and virtually ending Laurence’s naval career.
The novel is equal parts war story and novel of manners, with some rousing aerial battles thrown in for good measure. The dragon battles play out very similarly to sea battles, but at a much faster pace. Signalmen, gunners, boarders are all part of the crew, and the larger dragons, such as Temeraire and her friend Maximus, can hold large compliments of men – although men is perhaps a misnomer here. Novik cleverly sets up the aerial corps to be a different breed of duck than the other military branches, allowing women to serve on an equal footing with the men. In fact, one particular breed of dragon, the Longwing, will only take female captains.
The story loosely follows the history of the Napoleonic era, with a few changes (Lord Nelson survives Trafalger, for example), and due to the availability of air power, Napoleon attempts something he never attempted in real life: an invasion of Britain. This action put Laurence and Temeraire to the test, and they learn much about not only the enemy, but about themselves in the process, including the potentially ominous fact that Temeraire is not the breed of dragon they initially thought she was.
Novik is an extremely approachable writer, mixing some colloquial mannerisms with modern narrative structure, meaning pretty much anyone can sit down and get into this book. Her attention to detail includes many historical personages, as well as real locations and well thought out battle tactics. She’s definitely done her research here, and you can tell that she takes a certain glee in sharing the knowledge with her reader. Fortunately, it never feels like she is info-dumping, but rather that she is working the information together with a finely told and rousing tale. A triumphant first book.
Steve’s Grade: B+
A rip-roaring tale of dragons, tall ships, and Napoleonic battles. A lot of fun to read, and a wonderful new voice in alternate historical writing.
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