When Del Rey bought Naomi Novik’s first three books, they decided to release the U.S. editions in quick succession: one each in April, May, and June of this year. This technique has been used with great success for a number of romance series, but never for fantasy. (The U.K. schedule is more conventional: Temeraire in April ’06, Throne of Jade in August ’06, and Black Powder War in January ’07.) Due in no small part to Novik’s talent and a wealth of pre-print publicity, the first book, entitled His Majesty’s Dragon in the U.S. and Temeraire in the U.K., was very warmly received (see my earlier review). Since Throne of Jade and Black Powder War followed so closely on its heels, it makes sense to review them together.
The conceit of the series is straightforward: take one Napoleonic Era, add dragons, mix well. The style is strongly reminiscent of Master and Commander and others of its ilk. The dragons, used by the British for aerial support in battle, are fully sentient beings of wide-ranging variety, from small speedy couriers that carry a single man to behemoths whose crews and outfitting recall those of World War-era fighter planes. Their affection for their captains is fervent and undying, beginning from the moment when the dragon hatches and beholds the man—or, in some cases, woman—chosen to be his or her lifelong companion.
The series begins by introducing us to Temeraire, who hatches out of a Chinese egg captured from a French ship by the British Navy. Captain Will Laurence knows how valuable such a dragon is and that it must be matched with a rider to prevent it going feral; boldly and selflessly, he gives up his Naval career to become Temeraire’s captain and bring him into the Aerial Corps. Fortunately, this turns out to be an extremely smart decision. By British standards, Temeraire is a highly unusual dragon, almost a draconian Mary Sue: he’s beautiful and brilliant, comes from a strange foreign land, speaks multiple languages with ease, and has martial abilities that no one in the Commonwealth has ever encountered. He and Laurence bond immediately and embark on the first of many adventures together.
Novik deliberately structures her books so that each can be read as a standalone adventure, but there’s a lot to be gained by reading them in order. The end of His Majesty’s Dragon sees Laurence and Temeraire in rather hot water through no fault of their own: Temeraire is not only a Chinese dragon but a Chinese Imperial dragon, and the Chinese want him back. Never mind that they were the ones who gave him to the French. Dragons, it seems, are not subject to the usual rules about the spoils of war. So in Throne of Jade, Laurence and Temeraire and their crew sail off to China, where Temeraire encounters some very interesting ideas about the ways dragons should be treated, Laurence learns just how poor a diplomat he makes, and everyone is shocked by the outlandish Chinese food. (Food is very important in these books. Every few pages someone eats something or is interrupted in the middle of eating something or thinks about eating something. It’s used to set mood, establish place, and enhance characterization. Of course, in true classical fashion, hardly any mention is made of commodes, though presumably the British find Chinese methods of waste disposal barbaric as well.)
There is, unsurprisingly, a great deal of intrigue in the Chinese Emperor’s family and court, compounded by the presence of DeGuignes, an extremely smooth French ambassador. Laurence is a fascinating and engaging character, but his lack of political acumen means that he sees very little and understands less of what’s happening on the diplomatic scene, so we never quite find out just what’s going on with the French and the Chinese. Fortunately there’s lots of heart-pounding action to hold our attention, including a one-on-one dragon battle between Temeraire and Lien, an albino Imperial dragon who is deeply attached to Prince Yongxing and very involved in all the scheming.
Eventually everything gets settled with the Chinese, so Throne of Jade ends and Black Powder War begins with Laurence & co. docked in China and waiting for orders to return home. This time the adventure catalyst is a message, delivered by a rather strange fellow named Tharkay, that instructs Laurence and his crew to get themselves to Istanbul straightaway in order to take custody of three dragon eggs purchased from the Ottoman Empire by the British. Inconveniently, their ship has just been heavily damaged by a fire, so they end up going overland with Tharkay as their intermittently reliable guide. This is the point where even those who disdain maps in fantasy novels could possibly use one, especially given that the means of locomotion (namely camels and dragons) are unfamiliar to most readers. Fortunately, maps of the Ottoman Empire are generally easy to locate. A timeline of major Napoleonic Era events in our world and in Laurence’s world would also be interesting for those of us who dozed our way through history class; perhaps one will eventually appear on the author’s website.
Having covered much of China and Europe, Novik plans to head next to Africa. (See our interview with her in this issue for details of her recent visit there.) Throne of Jade includes a tantalizingly brief stop in Cape Town, complete with mention of wild dragons in “the interior”; Novik’s LiveJournal promises an encounter between Temeraire and an elephant, with results that may be predictable but doubtless entertaining. At some point there will presumably also be visits to the other continents (are there dragons in Antarctica?) Join His Majesty’s Aerial Corps and see the world!
The romantic relationship established in Temeraire between Laurence and fellow Aerial Corps Captain Jane Roland makes no appearance beyond a brief mention at the beginning of Throne of Jade; Temeraire acquires a ladyfriend while in China, but she too vanishes from the scene rather quickly (though not permanently, so perhaps she’ll resurface in a future volume). Such things are clearly secondary to the love between a man and a dragon. Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship continues to evolve throughout these stories, always touching and tender and hitting some interesting rocky territory when Temeraire starts getting funny ideas about draconian independence and Laurence has to explain the political difficulty of freeing British dragons from what amounts to slavery. We also have the chance to become familiar with the members of Temeraire’s crew, though Novik has few qualms about killing them off as the occasion demands. The continent-hopping makes it difficult for other characters to become more than peripherally interesting (though both they and the scenery are given generously detailed descriptions), but many of the other British officers make repeated appearances, and we undoubtedly haven’t seen the last of Tharkay. As the series develops more fully, so will the bit parts.
Readers who are tired of chewing their nails waiting for future installments to resolve cliffhangers, or those who simply don’t “do” series fiction, will find the self-contained excitement of each volume a welcome change. Like Temeraire, whose hatching and all the hubbub around it set the tone for His Majesty’s Dragon, the series has gone through its most explosive period of growth and settled down into a comfortable routine, chewing up scenery at a steady pace much as a cohort of dragons might do to their breakfast cattle. The later books are no less enjoyable for having mellowed out; they’re simply less golly-gee-whiz-bang, at least for those readers who began at the beginning. Newcomers who start with Throne of Jade or Black Powder War will find plenty to enthrall and captivate them. Those of us who have become accustomed to the idea of house-sized, sentient, perpetually hungry dragons will be quite happy to relax in their familiar company and look forward to future visits.
Rose Fox is the result of a genetic experiment to create the perfect writer. Having escaped from the laboratory, she now roams the streets of New York, looking for inspiration in gutters and rainbows.