by Naomi Novik
Edition reviewed, Voyager (HarperCollins), 2006, ISBN 0-00-721909-1. The US title is His Majesty's Dragon.
Temeraire is a historical fantasy, with the premise that flying dragons were used as an aerial strike force during the Napoleonic Wars. All the main characters are fictional.
Will Laurence, captain of a Royal Navy ship, captures a French frigate and finds that it is carrying a dragon's egg that is just about to hatch. A dragon has to be harnessed immediately after hatching, or it will turn feral and be useless for military service. The person who harnesses the dragon will be its handler for life, as dragons are reluctant to accept a change of handler once the initial bond has been formed, and will have to join the Aerial Corps as an aviator. Aviators are held in honour, since dragons are a key weapon, but they live apart from the rest of society and are not considered respectable. So Will Laurence is initially horrified when the newly hatched dragon spurns the man chosen to be its handler and takes a fancy to him instead. His strong sense of duty compels him to harness the baby dragon and give it a name - Temeraire - even though this means he has to give up his beloved ship, his family's approval and his prospective wife. Fortunately, Temeraire proves to be more than adequate compensation. The excitement of training in aerial combat and finding their place among the other dragons and aviators proves a rewarding and fascinating experience for them both. And finally they are called upon in a desperate attempt to foil an airborne invasion, where Temeraire's extraordinary powers are revealed for this first time.
Temeraire is a rattling good yarn with a fair amount of action and some very appealing characters. Indeed, almost all the main characters are remarkably nice people; I can only think of one really unsympathetic character (an aviator who neglects his dragon). Although the aviators are initially suspicious of Laurence, as an outsider entering their closed society, they mostly accept him and get on very well together with almost no petty infighting or backbiting. Perhaps this is due to the beneficial influence of the dragons, who are universally kind, courteous and well-mannered. One wonders why the dragons aren't running the world, as they'd probably make a better job of it than the humans. Temeraire in particular is a very attractive character, intelligent, affectionate, willing, considerate, eager to please and utterly without guile. No wonder Laurence gets so fond of him. His first word, minutes after hatching is "Why...?", and he retains this curiosity about the world throughout the novel. I find this appealing in itself, and it also provides an excellent world-building device, as Temeraire has to learn everything about the world and Laurence has to learn to adapt to the strange society of the aviators and the techniques of dragon combat. The reader therefore painlessly learns along with them as they explore their new environment.
The plot has many separate strands: Laurence and Temeraire have to get to know one another; Laurence has to adapt to his new life and social position; they both have to learn about aerial combat; there is a minor espionage sub-plot; a splendid illustration of an abusive relationship; a mystery over Temeraire's breed and why his egg was aboard the French frigate in the first place; the military build-up to the climactic battle scene; and a tangential romantic encounter for Laurence. This makes the book feel very much like the first in a series, as there is clearly huge scope for further exploration.
There are some nice flashes of humour, mostly of the understated variety - for example, the scene where Laurence finds himself delicately explaining about whores to Temeraire, or the scene in which dragons turn out to be a more appreciative audience for music than London high society. And the scholarly Appendix on the different breeds of dragon, written in the style of an 18th-century paper to the Royal Society, is great.
I found the historical setting distracting and annoying, a problem I often have with historical fantasy (more on this in another post). I can't suspend my disbelief sufficiently to accept that dragons fought at the Battle of the Nile or that Nelson survived Trafalgar, and so every time a historical event or person was mentioned it detracted from the story. This was further compounded by the repeated references to the aerial invasion force setting off from Cherbourg and requiring an easterly wind to carry it to Dover. Sorry, but the last time I looked at a map Cherbourg was a long way west of Dover. An easterly wind might be handy for invading America from Cherbourg, but for invading Britain a southerly would be more useful and would take you to the Isle of Wight. An invasion force arriving at Dover on an easterly might have started from Calais or Dunker or Ostend, but not from Cherbourg. Once I decided to read Temeraire as pure fantasy, set in an invented world that just happens to share some names with ours, these annoyances disappeared and I could get on with enjoying the story.
One difficulty I had was in fitting the social structure of the novel into
the world as described. Longwings are the most important breed of strike dragon,
since they can spit poison. They can only be handled by women. Now, this implies
to me that every battle since the time of Henry VII (when the Longwing breed
was first developed, according to the Appendix) would have had at least one
female war hero. For example, Longwings (and presumably also their female
captains) are said to have played an important role in defeating the Armada.
Is it really credible that the presence of female aviators would have stayed
such a secret for 300 years that Laurence had not even suspected their existence
until he joined the Aerial Corps? And surely the presence of women in a key
military role would have had some effect on the evolution of the role women
expected to play in the rest of society? Yet the social norms outside the
Aerial Corps are those of Jane Austen's world, with women who appear to have
little career choice other than finding a husband. I also found it puzzling
that the dragons, who are clearly at least as intelligent as the human characters
and enormously stronger, routinely obey humans. Why do they take orders from
people? Why do they let humans dictate their breeding? Perhaps this will be
picked up on in later books in the series, as Temeraire shows attractive signs
of independent thought.