Bibliophile reviews a (gasp!) new(ish) book

Author: Naomi Novik
Title: Temeraire
American title: His Majesty’s Dragon
Year published:2006
Genre: Fantasy/alternative history

Yet another independent bookshop in Reykjavík is closing and it looks like soon there will only be two chains left, both owned by the same company. But this is supposed to be a review, not a lament for the demise of the independent bookseller. At the closing sale I came across this book, which caught my attention with the cover artwork: a black dragon hovering over an old-fashioned warship under full sail. The blurb promised a novel of the Napoleonic era – only with dragons. I decided to cheat on my reading diet and read the book while my interest in it was still fresh, so here is the review:

The Story: When William Laurence and his crew capture a French ship Laurence wonders why the French put up such very fierce resistance to the taking of the ship. The reason becomes clear when a dragon’s egg is discovered in the hold. Dragons must be harnessed straight from the egg, or they will become wild and fly away after their first meal. Britain does not have many dragons and since they are an important force in fighting the French, it is important to harness the dragon, but the ship is two weeks from the nearest harbour and the egg is about to hatch. Dragons become bound by love and friendship to the person whom they allow to harness them, so that once bound, the dragon and person belong together for life. Dragon riders (called aviators in the book) are looked at askance by the rest of society because of the beasts and their wild mode of living, so it is not a good prospect for anyone to become an aviator. When the dragonet refuses to be harnessed by the man who was chosen for the task (by the drawing of lots), and chooses Laurence instead, Will knows he is in for a big career change. The rest of the book is about his and Temeraire’s growing friendship, their time in training and their first skirmishes and a full-blown battle with a French invading force.

Technique and plot: Having cut my reading teeth on fairy tales, myths and legends, I have always liked fantasy, but have not read any new books in the genre lately, simply because they have so often disappointed me. Instead I have waited until the books begin to be talked of as classics, but in the case of Temeraire my reader’s sixth sense (which is rarely wrong) screamed at me to buy and read it, perhaps because the artwork was not exactly typical for the kinds of fantasy one sees in Icelandic bookstores and because it mixes together fantasy with another genre that I love: the historical novel.

This is not hard-core fantasy. There is no magic, no wizards, no elves or goblins or any of the things considered necessary for high fantasy. Novik has not created a new world, but has taken an existing world (our own past) and given it a twist to include dragons, and – like Anne McCaffrey in her science fantasy Dragonrider novels – non-magical ones at that. Never mind that according to modern physics an animal as big as a dragon can not fly – the dragons in this book are a phenomenon of nature rather than of magic and therefore only fantastic in the sense that they exist in the book’s world and not in ours. The story blends together the two genres in such a matter of fact way that I didn’t find it at all incongruous to read about dragons in Napoleonic Europe.

Novik might be accused of taking a safe route by using a familiar setting rather than creating a completely new one, but as any habitual reader of history and historical fiction can tell you, there is nothing safe in using a setting that is so very well known to so many readers. She has managed it very well and drawn up such a convincing image (or mirage, if you like) of the early 19th century that you don’t notice until on the second reading that it is in fact only a veneer, a backdrop for the actual story of Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship.

Characterisations are, for the most part, realistic. Will Laurence is a typical English gentleman of the era (imagine Mr. Darcy with a dragon in tow), and his shock when he enters into the world of the aviators, whose views and ideas are more like those of the late 20th century (including women as the social equals of men and fornication without social stigma), is described in such a way as to make it perfectly understandable without making him look like an insufferable prude. Temeraire is given a distinct personality, is very intelligent and he and Will complement each other nicely. Both characters came very much alive in my mind while I was reading. Other personalities are a little less well drawn, but not so much as to make them flat.

For a first novel the writing is of good quality and if there is firstbookitis in it I certainly didn’t notice. While this is her first published book, it is obvious that Novik is not a novice writer. The writing is too polished for that.

There are already three books published in the series and a fourth on the way, and I look forward to reading them.

Rating: An excellent beginning to what I hope will turn out to be an excellent series. A definite re-read. 4+ stars.

P.S. I read that Peter Jackson (the Lord of the Rings director) has optioned the film rights to all three books. One can only hope that the option will eventually bear fruit in the form of a movie (or three). There are too few good fantasy movies around.


Rob in Denver said…
If recall correctly, Ms. Novik is married to Charles Ardai who owns and publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint (he also writes under the name Richard Aleas).
jenclair said…
Oh, this one sounds good!

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