His Majesty's Dragon

by Naomi Novik

Cover image

Series: Temeraire #1
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2006
ISBN: 0-345-48128-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 356

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The concept has instant fantasy reader appeal. Consider an alternate world at the time of the Napoleonic War. Now, add talking dragons as standard inhabitants, and military breeding programs with the mingled obsession of horse lines and the tactical planning of weapons design. Make the dragons large enough to carry crews of people and cast them in the role of the air force, with plenty of idiosyncratic details about aerial combat. Throw in an officer and a gentleman from the Navy (where all the prestige still is), a captured dragon egg containing a highly unusual and spectacularly powerful dragon (of course), a touch of McCaffrey-style impression, and an dragon service that doesn't stand on formality and clashes cultures badly with the Navy, and you have a brilliant blend of genre reader crack. It's one of those settings that makes the book if the author can pull it off: original while still touching so many beloved tropes that one can't quite believe no one put them together in this order before.

His Majesty's Dragon (also known by the far better British title Temeraire, which also, as usual, gets a better cover) is the debut novel from Naomi Novik and the first book of a trilogy that, in a surprising bit of publisher committment, savvy, and mercy, Del Rey is releasing one book per month. The entirety of it is now in print in the US, although I believe British readers may have to wait a bit longer. Having read the first, I can see why Del Rey is confident. Novik pulls off a good story in a brilliant (and commercially marketable) world background. I can't imagine this book not selling like hotcakes, at least by genre standards.

This is not, as you can probably tell, ground-breaking or genre-altering work. It is, however, a quite solid fantasy that avoids many of the expected traps and displays quite a bit of polish for a first novel. For example, dragons are the only bit of magic in Novik's world. There are (at least so far, and I hope this holds true) no lurking magicians, magic swords, lost civilizations, or dire mythological creatures. The dragons are the hook, they're sufficiently intriguing to provide material for the whole trilogy, and the world doesn't need more complications, but most fantasy novels would add them anyway. Novik has the thoughtfulness and courage to focus her books directly on their hook and write the dragons well enough to let them carry the world.

For another example, Novik adds in a just a touch of a comedy of manners to challenge Laurence as he moves from the Navy to the much less formal air force. This is the main source of dramatic tension in the first book (apart from battles of the war, but those are more background than plot except at the end). It's an excellent choice; it's full of emotional hooks to get the readers to like and side with Laurence, makes him seem more human as he struggles to adapt while still being a bit more admirable than anyone else around him, and yet also gets out of the way when need be and lets the background take center stage. The point of this book is to see the dragons, learn about them, understand their life and how they fit into the war, and understand how their presence changes the vaguely familiar conflict. To have added a heavy-weight plot on top of that exploration would have overloaded this book; a light, character-driven plot is a perfect counterpoint.

This book thrives on its background. The Napoleonic War is a great setting on its own, with just enough different of a culture to be recognizable and alien at the same time, a promise of high adventure and daring, resonances of other much-beloved series, and an opportunity to use reserved gentlemen heroes for protagonists without having to reconcile them with the expectations of modern culture. Dragons, even when read largely out of the McCaffrey playbook, are of course a gold standard of fantasy, and all the more so when they're young, precocious, and love to be read to. Neither setting is particularly original, and the book often felt like what you'd get if you replaced the science fiction in Pern with historical fiction. Temeraire's lack of psychic powers are largely replaced by his ability to talk and his quick mind. His impression on Laurence has fewer immediate fireworks than a Pern impression but is just as tight (and irrational) of an emotional bond. The French are sufficiently impersonal and off-screen to feel a bit like the inhuman threat of thread. However, the collision of the two settings creates something that feels different and distinct. Combined with Novik's light touch, refusal to complicate matters with extraneous additions, and strong characterization, this background pulled me right in even when I knew what strings Novik was pulling.

Temeraire himself steals every scene, particularly after he's grown enough to do more than eat and sleep. Having him hatch with the knowledge of (roughly) a human eight-year-old was a great stroke of storytelling, since it jumps straight into the character interactions Novik is best at. Laurence took a while for me to warm to (in part because I'm not personally that much of a fan of either sea stories or the Napoleonic era), but despite the unsubtety of the emotional cues, I felt attached to him by the end of the book. My personal preference is for a slightly subtler story and less obvious emotional cueing, but I can't really argue with Novik's choices; there are a few bobbles in pacing, characters without enough fine detail, and a bit of reliance on stereotypes, but those are nitpicks more than flaws.

This is an excellent introduction to the world, and has all the signs of setting the stage for even better books to follow. It's not mind-opening or world-altering, but for light reading and pure fun, His Majesty's Dragon is an excellent choice.

Followed by Throne of Jade.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-06-28

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