If you have become as jaded as I have become regarding fantastic fiction, even certain title choices causes you to avoid or at the very least postpone when you get to a novel, a blasé conditioning one goes through after one has been reading fantasy for an extended period of time, it is both an admittedly unfortunate and short-sighted habit, however has the strange quality of also being an effective way to avoid slush. One of these words is ‘Dragon’, which to my estimation hasn’t been a part of a novel worth reading’s title since Michael Swanwick’s Iron Dragon’s Daughter and prior to that John M. Ford’s excellent The Dragon Waiting: A Masque of History.
His Majesty’s Dragon (that’s Temeraire in the U.K, who btw, also get hard covers which will mot be available in the U.S.) proves worthy of the substantial push Voyager’s publicity department has been granting the release over the last couple of months; not in regards to agreeing with some of the comparisons being thrown about in the continued tradition of fly-by-night blurbs, but in terms of the bottom line, which is simply His Majesty’s Dragon is a more than worthy choice for those looking for a new series to indulge yourself in for the new year, a quality read about British Captain Will Laurence, and the hatchling dragon he names Temeraire, that to Laurence begins as a life-altering predicament that was at first merely a reluctant and even a self-sacrificing act of a dutiful and loyal officer of the Royal Navy, and what turned into one of the more engaging bonds in recent memory, and one that is equally interesting and thoughtful from both perspectives.
Novik chooses the time of the Napoleonic wars as her backdrop, and in our introduction into Novik’s world we are witnessing the conclusion of a naval battle, involving the HMS Reliant routing an out manned and French frigate, Amitie, reduced to a condition slightly more than a skeleton crew by disease hunger or both. To Laurence’s surprise his French counterpart did not relinquish the ship until the final outcome was even beyond fortuitous hope, a decision that at first was taken by Laurence as incompetent and irresponsible command.
“He hooked the Captain’s sword on his belt; he did not think the man deserved the compliment of having it returned to him, though ordinarily he would have done so”
Laurence would find himself in error however, as upon searching the captured ship, the desperation of the French was explained by its singular cargo, a dragon egg — one that’s about to hatch. The value of such a treasure and the implications and cost to the possessor of such a gift is Novik’s triumph in His Majesty’s Dragon. In Novik’s recasting of our history, dragons not only exist, but also serve as a contemporary air force. That in itself in no triumph, inserting dragons in such a manner is neither an element unheard of, nor particularly of interest, but Novik’s understanding of both the import and the potential of the interest peaking material in explaining the significance of a world populated with dragons in regards to the individuals directly impacted, and through them society as a whole, is as well and thoughtfully rendered — without drowning readers and rest of the plot in information dumps — as one could imagine. In Novik’s world dragons are bred, and the processes of the breeding are unique between nations and are among the most guarded of national secrets. While in Europe many of the dragons are bred for attributes of war, speed, size, strength, Novik touches on the rare qualities of the superior breeders in the Far East, where the Chinese and Japanese breed for intelligence and beauty, with knowledge unknown, to the west, in fact very few academics in dragon lore even know what the semi-legendary Imperials or Celestials of the Far East look like, the latter it is whispered granted the ability to level cities and Khan’s alike with kamikaze like timeliness and effectiveness. Now that the Asian pride moment of the review is completed, it should be noted that the accepting the responsibility of being an aviator, while viewed as honorable in the public’s eyes is an act of murder to social or potential social standing among the aristocratic and even the ‘gentlemen’ ranks. The relationship between dragon and rider is in most case until death, and the commitment is one that allows for essentially no private life or time for personal goals or comforts.
“An aviator could not easily manage any estate, nor raise a family, nor go into society to any real extent. They lived as men apart, and largely outside the law, for you could not punish an aviator without losing the use of his dragon”
“Though the men of the Corps were honored without question for their courage and devotion to duty, the prospect of entering their ranks could not be appealing to any gentleman raised up in respectable society”
Upon finding the egg, Laurence orders a draw to sew which crew members would attempt to harness the dragon upon its hatching, the trepidant, consummating act of a life-long and altering bond. Laurence includes himself in the draw, but with no small personal relief he is not the ‘winner’, a condition short lived, as the hatchling chooses to speak to Laurence first, in perfect English, its first words — ignoring the man chosen to harness him — with unexpected and poignant perception of and directed at Laurence:
“Why are you frowning”
The rest of the His Majesty’s Dragon depicts the growth of bond that will make Laurence’s first reaction a forgotten memory. After naming his friend aptly, after a French ship in our own history captured by the British in 1759, and a future British ship bearing the name fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, the duo would go into training to best serve against the looming threat of Napoleon, where not only will they learn the trade of aerial war craft, but it will serve as an illuminating experience for Laurence, as Novik sketches a bond that although indeed cultivated for combat, is more than that, the instances of Laurence reflecting on the times he reads to Temeraire, who is a voracious learner with keen interest in all manners of subjects, from stories of war and tactics, to mathematical theory, and find that although it is he who read the words aloud, it is Temeraire who often grasp the concepts and explains them to him. What is a dragon without a hoard? Aviators go to specialty shops that craft and sell different articles of jewelry of all shapes, sizes, stones, and price, all elements that are not looked over by a dragon’s vanity, which is an illustration of what I felt was one of the two strongest aspects of my introduction to Novik; the legitimate charm that runs continuous throughout out the story. Each scene is a learning experience for each, or both Temeraire and Laurence, and each scene carries with it a sense of a feeling of discovery. Laurence is both a comrade in arms, yet also father, and best friend to Temeraire, and Temeraire is absolute in his adamancy of his loyalty to Laurence. The dialogue between the two is believable and effectively instills the reader with a sense of true friendship between the two. The other element that Novik brings is the ability to covey relations, moods, and paint firm pictures of all the characters with very little excess or fat. Other authors would have felt inclined to turn the story Novik effectively told in 350+ pages into a 500-page exercise in fluff, which made only one’s personal time constraints the only reason to put His Majesty’s Dragon down. Also handy, at the end of the read you get a few pages of reference, as excerpts from a study of dragons that give the reader a nice summary of the different breeds of European dragons, there innate abilities, breeding combinations, and a brief note on Orientals.
I really enjoyed Novik’s debut, and plan on reading the sequels The Throne of Jade and Black Powder War both coming out in 2006, but would warn some of the aforementioned comparisons, which although is not an observation made to lessen the outlook of Novik’s work, I feel they are rather inappropriate. The three authors who are used as comparisons to this project on various publicity items are Jane Austen, Susanna Clarke, and Patrick O’Brian or some combination of. I have only read various non-fiction biographies from the latter so can offer no remark, but I have read more Austen than I care to admit in company, and absolutely loved Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and what His Majesty’s Dragon is not is version of Clarke’s vision with an added dragon element. Clarke brought Regency England to the reader with its ideals, and sensibilities, and mannerisms, with timely wit, that made the atmosphere and setting of Clarke’s work an achievement in itself. While Novik’s portrayal is more than adequate, and not a point of detraction, it’s not a comparison that I think admirers of Clarke would find naturally comparable at all, except that both novel’s backdrops are largely indeed in England and both are works of speculative fiction occurring and combining with our historical past. It’s not in the mold of Clarke or Stephenson in this facet, however, this probably has just as many relieved as it does otherwise – this is a page turner, and as good page turners do, you will care at the end.
What Novik’s work does offer is the integration of one of Fantasy’s trademark creatures into a worthwhile novel, which as noted, is hardly a common accomplishment, and does so with an allure that I think few readers will be able to avoid in, as somewhat akin to dragons of fantasy novels past and in the tradition of gaming, dragons have the ability to charm those around them, and Temeraire, the dragon from the Far East that was meant for Napoleon himself, is the most engaging of his species I have read about in fantasy and will no doubt charm readers.