Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Temeraire (His Majesty's Dragon) by Naomi Novik

Published under the name His Majesty's Dragon in the US this is the first book in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. The book is called Temeraire in the UK and also here in Australia.

Set amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, Temeraire is a thrilling tale of one of the most dramatic chapters of European History with a brilliant veneer of bold fantasy.

As Napoleon's Grande Armee tears Europe apart, his vast armada threatens Britain. But the battles are not fought upon land and sea alone, for both sides have an air force. And the fiery death they rain down upon their enemies has little to do with gunpowder - it comes from the very guts of the beasts they are flying: dragons.

Weeks out of port at Madeira, a British vessel - the Reliant, commanded by Captain William Laurence - captures a French frigate. Within its hold lies a greater prize than the ship herself: a dragon egg. And it is close to hatching.

Young dragons must be put to harness immediately or they go feral, and once harnessed, the beast will accept no other master. When the newborn ignores his chosen rider and approaches Laurence instead, his life is changed forever.

But even more astonishing than the young dragonet - named Temeraire by Laurence - is the revelation that the egg was meant for the Emperor Napoleon himself...

I don't read a lot of fantasy, but this book was attractive to me for a couple of reasons. One is that it has been getting a lot of positive reviews, and the second is that it could almost be classified as historical fantasy. Novik has taken the events of the Napoleonic wars, and just tweaked them, by giving the combatant countries an air force, not made up of planes or balloons, but rather of dragons. One of the reasons I don't read a lot of fantasy is that I don't really enjoy the world building that sort of has to happen to establish the rules for the society, hierachy, social rules etc. By only having to tweak the world as we know it a little, it means that the story can get going a whole lot quicker and for me that is a bonus.

When Captain William Laurence engages in battle with a French warship, he is kind of surprise that the crew fights so fiercely given that they are practically starving, and there doesn't seem to be any great treasure or anything on board, until they come across a dragon egg...very close to hatching.

The thing with dragon's eggs is that they must be harnessed and bonded with their rider pretty much immediately because otherwise they will go feral or will not accept another handler - a waste of a terribly precious resource, particularly in these troubling days. It is therefore agreed that the officers on board will all draw lots to see who the unlucky handler is going to be. It is considered unlucky because to be a dragon handler pretty much means leaving life as you know it behind, to live in the dragon coverts where they are trained and cared for. Gone are the chances to be courted in society - where naval officers are welcomed in society, dragon handlers are pretty much shunned. Also gone is pretty much any chance of marriage, family, and gaining advancement and material wealth.

So when the dragon shuns the chosen handler and instead attaches himself to Laurence, he is quite upset but realises that he has no choice as a man of great honour but to do his duty for his country. And yet, as he gets to know the dragon he has chosen to name Temeraire, he finds that he enjoys his new life- including their many conversations about life, reading books together, hunting, and eventually when they are bought back to England for training, getting ready for their coming life together during their manoeuvres. One of my favourite conversation between the two was when the normally unflappable Laurence had to explain to Temeraire why the men from the dragon corps visit the nearby town to visit the local prostitutes...very funny. I did find Laurence's habit of calling his dragon "My Dear" a little affected but I got over it eventually!!

The thing with Temeraire is no one really knows what kind of dragon he is, and so they don't know what his special skill is. They know he is a Chinese dragon but that is about as far as it goes. With his superior speed and intelligence he is still a very valuable asset and when his weapon is revealed it is very key in the battle against those fiendishly clever French men under the rule of Napoleon.

The other interesting dynamic in the book is the relationship between the other flyers and Laurence. It is very unusual for someone to swap from the Navy to the Flying corps (and vice versa), and Laurence brings with him very different ideas of how his crew should be run. It is interesting to watch both the other flyers and Laurence begin to get an understanding and working together. One of the more interesting relationships is between Laurence and a female officer by the name of Roland. There is a good build up in the relationship, but I can't help but feel that the author backed away from building the relationship up completely - but maybe that is just the romance reader in me talking!! I hope to see this relationship develop further in the next books in the series.

The other day I was in one of our department stores looking longingly at the second book in the series. I think I am going to have to ask the library to see whether they will order this one and the third one in the series in for me.

As an added bonus there is a short story on the author's website which fits between the first and second books, and there is also a web game that Harper Collins UK put up to coincide with the release of this book in the UK.

Overall, a very enjoyable read.

Rating 4.5/5

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  1. The Napoleonic wars with dragons. This is an amazing book. Everywhere I've looked, the reviews were all five star (, LibraryThing, etc.) and they were right. When I read the book, I thought I'd read the first chapter before I went to sleep. Three hours later I was still going strong.

  2. What an absorbing book, I read it like in 4 days, it is too good for not to.