Dragons have been a part of fantastic fiction, and indeed stories in general, since people have been telling stories. Since Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders saga began, the creature has been even more of a fixture in the Speculative Fiction genres. So how can a first-time author possibly have something new and interesting to say about dragons in her debut novel? Well, read Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon and you may find an answer to the question.
For many readers, part of the enjoyment in reading Fantasy & Science Fiction is experiencing a new and interesting take on a familiar element. Here, Novik does an excellent job of crafting an alternate history with dragons; a simple conceit that succeeds in her solid, if not perfect, execution. The story starts out in the midst of a Naval battle between British and French forces during the Napoleonic Wars. Novik captured the tension and the action very well, I was hooked early on and throughout the entire novel.
Captain Will Laurence defeats the French in this particular battle, and after looting the French vessel, the British, through Laurence’s victory, possess a dragon egg. In the course of trying to bring the egg back to England, the egg hatches and Laurence, unwittingly, bonds with the dragon. Or rather, the dragonet, Temeraire, chooses Laurence as his bond-mater and aviator. Laurence soon transfers from the Navy to the Aerial Corps. I thought Novik did a nice job in transitioning Laurence from the life of a Navy man to the life in the Aerial Corps, and adjusting his preconceived notions and expectations from his previous military life with his new one.
A good majority of the novel deals with the human/dragon bond, specifically that relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. Like many good storytellers Novik reveals the world though the characters. As Laurence learns more about the relationship between Temeraire and himself, so do we learn more about the relationship between dragon and its aviator. The relationship is more intimate than dog and owner closer than best friends. The only aspect of their relationship that didn’t ring as natural, and perhaps a bit odd, to me was how Laurence and Temeraire constantly referred to each other as “My Dear.”
Novik also captured a nice feel for the era in which the story takes place, even if sometimes felt slightly contrived, The manners of each of the characters, the speech patterns, and even the thoughts of Will Laurence are all very “proper,” as would befit gentleman and aristocracy of the turn of the 19th Century. While the story takes place against the epic backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, Novik balances this large backdrop with intimate characterizations, particularly the conflicted and war-torn protagonist of Will Laurence. His views on the war, and especially his outsider’s view of the dragon/aviator relationship proved a nice contrast against the veteran aviators and their methods for training and warring; and proved to be a great window into her fictional world. I liked Laurence’s character, but at times his strict adherence to the “proper” manners and code for dealing with situations was frustrating.
To say this was a touted debut is a bit of understatement; and this comes across right on the cover, which includes a nice blurb from Stephen King. Novik had a great deal to live up to and it might be unfair for any writer to have such a measure by which to be judged. While many books may not have been able to live up to the big buzz and hype, Novik still put forth a very entertaining effort, more importantly, she shows a great deal of promise. I think something should also be said for the book itself; Del Rey put together a nice series packaging on the three books, at least based on the first published book and the cover images of the next two books shown on the back.
Even though this is blatantly the opening novel of a larger tale, Novik concluded the book very well. However; early on, elements of story place the dragons not only in the ranks of British and French, but the entire world. These hints at a deeper history of her world, from Roman dragons, to the Chinese dragons involved in the story, show the very fertile ground for more stories. These suggestions of larger themes at play and other dragons to be discovered in the following volume, Throne of Jade will be most welcome. Blending elements of Fantasy and Alternate History, Novik has crafted a solid and entertaining debut with His Majesty’s Dragon.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford