Have you ever taken a good, long look at the Napoleonic Wars and thought, “These are cool, but they could really use more dragons”? Naomi Novik did, so she wrote a book about it.
That’s really all you need to know about the Temeraire series: if it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then it’s not going to change your mind about dragons or about the Napoleonic Wars. But if it sounds awesome, then you’re in for a treat. I originally gave this five stars when I added it to Goodreads, having read it before I joined the site. I’ve decided to revise this to three stars now that I’ve had the time to read and compose a proper review. While in terms of my sheer enjoyment and reading pleasure this is a five-star read, His Majesty’s Dragon still has flaws. Fortunately, having read much of the rest of the series, I know it just gets better.
Novik has imagined an alternative universe where humanity has been breeding and harnessing dragons for centuries, if not millennia. Her dragons are diverse, existing as various geographically-distributed breeds of different size, colour, mass, and of course, tactical abilities. In this alternative world, Britain has both a fearsome navy at see and an Aerial Corps of officers who lead squadrons of dragons into battle. A trained British dragon is a sight to see, for it carries into battle an entire crew of gunners and bombers—and a dragon itself is a formidable foe.
This series is essentially a “boy and his dragon” story writ large across an intricate historical backdrop. William Laurence is a successful Navy captain who captures a French frigate—and the dragon egg it’s transporting. When the egg hatches while returning to port, Laurence becomes the person who harnesses the dragon for England. This is a deep, personal connection that is difficult to transfer. Indeed, as Laurence comes to know Temeraire, he decides he does not want to leave Temeraire, despite the loss of his Navy commission—and his ship—that this entails.
The relationship between Laurence and Temeraire is the lifeblood of this series. At times it gets a little mushy, because Laurence and Temeraire are always going on about how fond they are of each other, and I can’t help but be creeped out by the thought that Temeraire is this giant reptilian cat. Thanks to the contrasts Novik presents in the way other aviators interact with their dragons, however, it becomes clear that Laurence and Temeraire are something special. While most aviators, with a few notable exceptions, are devoted to their dragons’ wellbeing, Laurence and Temeraire have a very unusual dynamic. This is partly the result of Laurence’s unexpected entry into the Aerial Corps: he doesn’t have any of the preconceived notions about dragons and dragon training that would have been drilled into him as a cadet. So he does things like reading books to Temeraire, or giving him baths, that the other aviators just don’t do. And in his own, unassuming way, Laurence upsets the status quo. This isn’t, generally, a good idea in a military outfit—less so when it’s the nineteenth century.
Temeraire speaks English (and French), learned from the shell. Indeed, I like how Novik’s dragons are a largely intelligent, self-aware bunch. The degree of that intelligence varies, from rather dull representatives like Maximus to the sharp and wise Celeritas. Although deadly in battle, Novik’s dragons are essentially people. This is a theme that becomes apparent in His Majesty’s Dragon and continues throughout the series. Even as she gives us exciting dragon-on-dragon action—by which I mean battle scenes—Novik also explores how we co-exist with another intelligent species in a very rich and profound way.
The battle scenes are not my favourite part of this book. I don’t visualize while reading, so Novik’s careful descriptions of the logistics of harnessing and flying a dragon or of the intricate chaos of aerial combat do little for me. It happens; it’s over; we go home. I’m much more enamoured with the scenes that happen between battles, the dialogue between Laurence and Temeraire and everything we learn about this alternate 1805. I’m not an historian, so I won’t comment on Novik’s accuracy. Yet she’s clearly enjoyed playing the what-if game of how the world would be different with dragon warfare. Of course, one has to give her the benefit of a doubt that even with dragons as a major game piece throughout human history, our nation states would largely have developed in parallel to what happened in our world. Otherwise, maybe Britain would still be ruled by a 19th-century Roman Empire! (But that’s for another story….) Indeed, from the perspective of His Majesty’s Dragon, it regretfully seems like this is little more than “nineteenth-century Europe … with dragons”—the most haphazard form of alternative fiction. I know that future books clarify this description and show how the world is far more interesting in its deviations from our own—but that’s for another review.
His Majesty’s Dragon is a fantastic combination of wit and humour with conflict and difficult decisions. Laurence leaves everything he has known and loses the woman he plans to marry in order to be Temeraire’s captain. Temeraire discovers his origins and his potential even as he realizes that dragons are treated as far less than citizens in English society. And behind all these personal stories hovers the spectre of Napoleon himself. As another reviewer pointed out, this book is a strong fantasy entry because it lacks a clichéd “dark lord” character manipulating everything from behind the scenes. Instead, Novik lets the larger events of the time take that role, and they serve admirably.
There are some issues with pacing here, and Novik’s characterization leaves a little to be desired. Some of the characters are well done, and their relationships are varied and interesting. In particular, I appreciate the evolution of Laurence’s relationships with Rankin and Granby. Clearly Novik knows what she’s doing here; she just chooses to focus so much on Laurence and Temeraire and lets them carry the story to the extent that sometimes other characters seem to suffer for it.
I love the Temeraire series, and His Majesty’s Dragon is an excellent piece of historical fantasy with a military edge. For the most part, it’s well-written and imaginative, with heroes, epic conflicts, and twists and reversals that literally make me cheer out loud. It’s that kind of a book.