Wednesday, March 03, 2010

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

Think Patrick O'Brian and dragons.

For a work that includes dragons, it would be easy to dismiss this as another work of fantasy, but it is actually closer to historical fiction than fantasy. It is an alternate version of England fighting the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Naomi Novik grounds her work with careful detail of the time period, including the culture, the mindsets and prejudices, and concerns for social status and expected behavior. There are no wizards, magic, fairy creatures, and knights in shining armor, only dragons. The dragons are used by people to fight aerial battles and are valued for how useful they are in war. Though people are glad to have dragons fight for them, they are still feared and treated only a little better than livestock. Same goes for the people who fight and train alongside the dragons, the Aerial Corps. These men, and, even women (the only military branch that includes women) are not considered a respectable part of society and must devote their lives to the care and training of dragons, which ruins any chance for a normal life.

Dragons as historical fiction is a novel twist, and it is definitely worth seeing how Novik plays it out. Something else that is sure to appeal are the characters, both dragons and humans. Front and center is Temeraire, the dragon himself. He is a one of a kind black Chinese dragon. His egg was on a French ship captured by the English, and the English found themselves with a hatchling and little idea what to do about him. He is curious, intelligent, and headstrong, which makes it a delight to see his interactions with the people around him. Like baby birds who imprint on their mother or a mother figure, dragons form attachments to a single human who must see to their care and upbringing and become their lifelong companion; furthermore, it is only this human that the dragon will listen to, so the chosen human must devote his (or her) life as this dragon's partner. Temeraire chooses Captain Will Laurence, a man who has worked his way up to a decently respectable position in society as captain of the ship, the Reliant, and already has plans and an engagement for the future. Now, this naval man must leave the sea and his ship to take to the air in his service to the crown. His life is completely thrown awry, and he is duty-bound to get Temeraire trained to fight for England. Though their partnership is not off to the best start, a bond quickly grows between them. The hatchling is a child---a rather big, precocious child---and his openness and inquisitiveness make it easy for Laurence (and readers) to come to care for him. It is enjoyable and touching to see them interact with each other, with plenty of humorous situations in Temeraire's learning (and Laurence's as he learns about being an aviator for the Corps).

Temeraire and Laurence's introduction as members of the Corps means learning a new life style and meeting new characters. With the story being told from Laurence's point of view, readers learn about what the Corp does and what their life and training are like at the same time as Laurence learns about it, which keeps the story from being bogged down with textbook-style details. Laurence learns, some times the hard way, about how different things are, such as the prohibition against dueling in the Corps, the informality between the ranks, and even dragon care (who knew dragons like to take baths?), and it is especially here where readers can see the unique bond and love Temeraire and Laurence have for each other. They meet other dragons from different breeds. There is Maximus, a huge powerhouse; Lily, a dragon who can spit acid; Celeritas, a veteran trainer of dragons; Levitas, an earnest and good hearted dragon sadly neglected by his handler. They get to know the other men and women of the Corps: Berkley, a gruff but good man; Catherine Harcourt, one of the few woman handlers and not a typical gentle lady; Granby, a man that gets off on the wrong foot with Laurence but comes to become one of his most trusted crewman; Roland, a young girl cadet, and there are quite a few more. All in all, the characters and time period make for an interesting set up, and it is worth seeing where the story goes.

There is plenty of adventure and fighting, as suitable for a story taking place during a turbulent time in history, politics (and even a budding movement towards dragon rights), moments of humor and levity, and mysteries, with Temeraire being one of them. Find Novik's debut work, His Majesty's Dragon, on the VBPL Catalog. If you enjoy this book, you may also like the other books in the Temeraire series, with the sequel being Throne of Jade, in which the story takes Temeraire, Laurence, and their crew to China.

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