His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
Reviewed by Rose Fox
27 February 2006
Given the impressive buzz generated by this debut novel, some readers may be at the point of eschewing it because it's "too popular" or "a crowd-pleaser," obviously not suitable for those with more rarefied tastes. Others may be skeptical upon hearing that the author's history includes years as a fanfic writer, a computer programmer, and game designer, or that she's the wife of publishing notable Charles Ardai, the head of Hard Case Crime. While Novik has certainly taken sensible advantage of her contacts and skills, creating her own Flash promo for Del Rey's website and garnering blurbs from an astonishing array of renowned authors who perhaps did not first hear of her through the usual publicity channels, there's no question that underneath all the hype is a becomingly modest Napoleonic fantasy that satisfies on several levels.
There's plenty of eye-candy right from the start: the two lead characters, Captain Will Laurence and his draconian companion Temeraire, are exemplary members of their species in both looks and manner. (Laurence, in particular, will surely be a big hit with female readers, despite or perhaps because of his occasionally rocky romantic prospects. Watch for slashfic popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain.) Since dragons join with their riders for life—the life of the rider, that is, since dragons live for several centuries—and the Aerial Corps is so thinly stretched that they can't afford to give up a good dragon just because that dragon's chosen companion would rather sail than fly, bonding with Temeraire means the end of Laurence's cherished and hard-won Naval career and renders him unmarriageable in his family's social circle. The captain's grief for what might have been and his (obligatory) British stuffiness are nicely balanced, however, by his rock-solid sense of honor and the tenderness he shows the newly hatched dragon. Temeraire approaches the world with the wide eyes and thoughtful analysis of a precocious child, behavior somehow all the more endearing in a creature that routinely consumes several times his own weight in cattle. Exposition comes naturally as Laurence explains the world to Temeraire, and Novik is careful to find other ways to educate the reader so that the dialogue always remains fresh and unforced. Laurence's mindset is so easy to slip into that the reader has no trouble understanding and sharing his reactions: his shock when dropped abruptly into the rough-and-tumble world of the Aerial Corps; his outrage at the mistreatment of another dragon and his shame when he finds that it comes at the hands of a fellow officer who shares his upper-class background; and his deep and abiding love for Temeraire.
Same-species connections are almost irrelevant in the Corps culture except where they benefit cross-species interaction: for example, Captain Roland suggests that Laurence hook up with their colleague Captain Harcourt, not for any romantic reason but because they could have two children who would inherit their dragons. Roland is quite interested in keeping company with Laurence herself, but that's considered entirely separate from issues of childbearing. Similarly, the dragons breed for numbers and types of offspring that will benefit the Corps. The real mating here is that between dragon and rider. Were Temeraire a human woman, the intense focus on his developing relationship with Laurence might get this series classified under "romance," although there's never a hint of sexual connection. Novik uses the lifelong bond between dragons and riders and the inherent romanticism of the era to embark on a skillful exploration of the many varieties of partnership, from the physically and emotionally abused dragon who nonetheless longs only to please his rider, to Laurence tenderly reading to the knowledge-hungry Temeraire from mathematics texts that he himself can't begin to understand. It's rather like a primer on healthy and unhealthy relationship patterns, cleverly disguised as thrilling historical fantasy.
Some cliches make themselves known here and there, as is only to be expected in a debut. Many characters fit the stereotype-with-a-twist model, including Laurence (the stiff-necked rules-bound officer with a heart of gold) and his fellow captains Berkley (the blustery red-faced complainer with a stout sense of duty), Harcourt (the shy femme with a core of steel), and Roland (the battle-scarred butch with a fondness for flirtatious card games). The catch is usually revealed early on and further development is rare. Some of the shipboard dialogue could also be straight out of Master and Commander, though that might be as much a compliment as a complaint. The subplot dealing with the Aerial Corps' shocking employment of female officers and treatment of dragons not as beasts of burden but as intelligent, self-directed members of the team is presented almost with a hint of tabloid salaciousness, and while Laurence is thrown for a loop when he first encounters this very unusual way of doing things, he recovers too quickly for the reader to share either his unthinking sexism or any sense of real struggle to change his mindset. Novik continues to emphasize that the outside world would be appalled by such things, but it's harder to believe when reading from the perspective of someone who simply had to shift a couple of mental gears to be (apparently permanently) acclimated to the idea of women and animals as equal to men. These few flaws, however, are so thoroughly offset by rich prose—and, since His Majesty's Dragon is the first of a trilogy, the hope of further character development in upcoming volumes—that the reader can't help but share the sheer delight that the author clearly finds in the Napoleonic era and the characters with which she has chosen to populate it. Every setting is lavishly described, the mores and mannerisms of the time are portrayed with historical accuracy and period flair, and in this action-driven plot, the occasional predictability of the characters means blessedly few distractions from the heart-pounding battle scenes.
In short, this normally rather jaded reviewer found herself laughing aloud, bouncing up and down with glee, wiping away honest-to-goodness tears, and eagerly petitioning her editor for galleys of the next two volumes. Fortunately for those who share these reactions, Del Rey is taking the unusual step of publishing mass market U.S. editions in three consecutive months: His Majesty's Dragon in April, Throne of Jade in May, and Black Powder War in June. If you can't bear to wait that long (or you live in the U.K.), His Majesty's Dragon has been released by HarperCollins under the title Temeraire. Just be warned that if you ask a British friend to do you the favor of shipping it over there may be other delays: chances are good that they'll insist on reading it first.