Temeraire (aka His Majesty’s Dragon) by Naomi Novik
Published by Voyager, January 2006
Review by Hobbit
Here’s a tough one – how do you write a book about dragons without drawing parallels with all the old Fantasy clichés?
In Naomi Novik’s case you write it as a Patrick O’Brian seafaring romp, set in Napoleonic times, with a good dash of CS Forrester (Hornblower) thrown in. This means sailing ships, warfare, a British Navy (with Admiral Lord Nelson), a dastardly enemy, swords drawn, cannons thundering and stiff upper lips a-plenty. Oh – and dragons.
This slim novel starts briskly with Captain William Lawrence, captain of The Reliant, capturing a French frigate. The main prize of such a capture however is not the ship, important though that is, nor the French crew, but a rare dragon’s egg, originally destined for the French leader Napoleon. This promptly hatches and engages with Will Lawrence, much to his initial dismay.
Consequently poor Will has a sudden major life/career change. Having started the novel with a promising Naval career in the prestigious British Royal Navy, a girlfriend ashore and the hope of a profitable retirement in the future, he now finds himself an aviator with no girlfriend, and a low life expectancy in the much less honourable Aerial Corps, dealing with the (frankly rather dangerous) air antics of a dragon squadron as well as everything Napoleon’s armies can throw at him.
Events then conspire to pitch Will and Temeraire against the villainous French.
As I hinted in the introduction, this is not an easy one – how do you write a book about dragons without evoking other books of the same type?
Well, Novik manages it by writing a book which moves along quickly. The book is basically divided into three sections – birth, training and battle. The book starts at the end of a sea battle, but in the next thirty pages or so the reader is then rushed through a number of events – the dragon is found, born/hatched and nursed by Will before being taken off to the Corps. This gives the reader little time to pause for breath (as well as any time given to stop to think through any illogical flaws). The last section ending has a brilliantly evoked battle – ever imagined dragons fighting in squadrons against other dragons? Novik covers it very well indeed.
It also helps that Novik’s writing is pleasingly smooth – clearly something she has worked at, and not always easily achieved, especially in a writer’s first book. She manages to create characters which the reader quickly empathises with, and places them in a briefly shown but well-realised alternate history without resorting to information-dump nor historical lecture. It also helps that her style is very precise, clear and engaging and quickly won me over.
For a first novel it is very good indeed.
However there are some cautious reservations on my part. Parts of the novel do not bear too much close inspection. The book’s brief length gives it a speed and tautness which is to be admired, whilst at the same time the reader does not develop a depth to the characters or really get to grips with nineteenth century Europe and Asia. It is not The Years of Rice and Salt, for which some readers will be grateful.
Having said that the characterisation is good, the books briefness also means that some characterisations are a little simplistic. Interestingly, Will has a little more depth. He can be seen as a character of moral fibre – at times, almost enough to build a house with! – and this has both advantages and disadvantages. Readers may identify with him as a moral compass, and as such a suitable guardian for the innocent Temeraire. At other times this strict moral discipline does make him come across as detached, aloof and priggish. Other characters are less well defined though quickly understood.
For me the biggest problem for me was that there was at times a feeling of people speaking as if they had wandered off a Pride and Prejudice or a Carry-On film set – something which I didn’t get with Susanna Clarke’s very mannered Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, but often sadly happens when writers try to capture a feeling of ‘Britishness.’ Though Novik’s style is not as mannered as some books, (see above example), there are places where such idioms jarred. Unlike Clarke’s book, which used such a style constantly, Novik’s book did not convince as effectively. The book tries a little too hard to be of a style similar to Jane Austen, which in a book of this brevity doesn’t really have the room to persuade.
Furthermore the dialogue used is in places unfortunately (and perhaps paradoxically) rather stilted and ‘too British’ to be realistic. One major example of this did niggle – for Will to go around calling a dragon ‘my dear’ was very disconcerting. As I understand it, such a term of endearment as used here would be used only towards a wife or fiancée, and again probably only in select or private company. Though ‘dear Temeraire’ or ‘my dear Temeraire’ would’ve been acceptable, to talk to the dragon as if it was an intimate of Will’s was a little alarming for me. Novik does have a habit of throwing it in on a regular basis as the relationship between Will and Temeraire develops.
Furthermore, at times the story’s coincidences did require a certain suspension of disbelief, though this was not as bad as it could have been. After all, a book which uses Nelson and Napoleon, (albeit in the background) as well as the Chinese and dragons in one book? Who’ve thought it?
On the more positive side, the dragons are very well done. It is a difficult thing to do to create characters that while clearly non-human, are likeable, yet Novik manages this deceptively effortlessly. Temeraire, the titular dragon, is both amusing and affable, and I found myself being touched by his forthrighteousness and his honesty as well as the friendship he has with Will as their relationship develops. The other dragons (of which there are many types) also effectively capture a grandeur and majesty as well as sympathy and empathy from the reader.
I also thought the different types of dragon – ones bred for speed, others bred for range and attack capabilities – was a nice touch and one which I suspect will be used again later. (If you want to know a few more details on this, there’s a nice Appendix of about seven pages at the end of the book).
In summary, I think the book will be well liked by many, (as it was by myself) – though I further suspect (grudgingly) that in the harsh light of the current publishing position that it is not startlingly original enough to make as much of an impact as some would like it to have. Despite glowing comments from luminaries such as Stephen King and Anne McCaffrey on the dustjacket, I felt (a little sadly) that the book may be a victim of it’s own hype / promotion. Despite hints (and reviews) to the contrary, it is not a book with the depth of say Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, to which it has been compared, though to be fair it doesn’t claim to be.
Its characterisation and easy-reading style make it more akin to McCaffrey’s work, though much more Fantasy based here.
There are differences though. Novik’s dragons carry many more soldiers than the bonded rider, unlike McCaffrey’s. In Temeraire, the dragons are also bred for battle, with all the feelings of excitement and loss that such events can create. The History angle was a different approach, though not as unique as some might think it to be. I found that it was refreshing to read about dragons in a world which was not quasi-medieval, though I feel that it is not a book that will be read for being at the cutting edge of the genre. Ultimately, some will see the book as extremely likeable yet undemanding, well researched though rather unchallenging.
Nevertheless, I am sure that it will be well regarded, and in my opinion deservedly so, though this view must be tempered with the point that it’s interest is gained whilst not demanding much effort on the reader’s part.
In conclusion, if you like books like McCaffrey’s Pern series but want to read about dragons at war in a more historical or fantasy based setting, then this may be the book for you.
I will read the next book (Throne of Jade) with interest.
Hobbit, March 2006