His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
Much as I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for the sheer conceit of “Napoleonic wizards!”, His Majesty’s Dragon caught my eye by a very similar one–“Napoleonic dragons!”. I can’t remember where I first heard about it, because I feel like I’ve been meaning to read it for years. It could be either a bookish source or a fannish one, as Novik thanks several members of LiveJournal in her afterword, which is too broad for me to narrow down. I remember finding it in a friend’s dorm room last year and promising myself I’d borrow it. (I did not.) But the day has finally come to pass; I’ve gotten my hands on His Majesty’s Dragon… but I think I may have let the hype get the better of me. Again.
His Majesty’s Dragon is set during the Napoleonic Wars, with one very large difference–dragons. Each country has an Aerial Corps composed of dragons and their crews. When Captain Will Laurence captures the egg that hatches the dragon Temeraire, he is whisked away from the Navy and into the Aerial Corps, at an age well after most aviators start training. Together, they must become the best they can be in order to help the fight against the ever scheming Napoleon.
I, for whatever reason, spend a lot of time thinking about the canine condition and how it differs from the human condition–how is one’s world view changed when your main sense is smell and not sight? From that perspective, Novik has created in Temeraire a magnificent and magnificently draconic character. He’s very practical, straightforward, and unfailingly polite, but doesn’t care too much for the human perspective of things (although he entertains a brief fantasy of Laurence and himself switching places). There’s a wonderful moment when Temeraire inquires about why Dover is so popular, and Laurence attempts to avoid the subject of prostitutes–to which Temeraire cheerfully volunteers that he knows all about them and is more concerned with concert halls. Laurence is an upstanding and honorable gentleman, with a healthy concern for dragonkind and a special bond with Temeraire. I was glad to see that he wasn’t particularly progressive in his views about women until he went to the Aerial Corps, where women serve alongside men; his offended sense of propriety mixed with his wish to remain polite was quite fun to watch. Of course, his views are thoroughly corrected towards the end, with the help of the amazing Jane Roland (I love her). These two characters are the heart and soul of the book, and they are wonderful.
For some reason, I was under the impression that Temeraire was the first dragon ever discovered or the first dragon ever found by the British. I was very wrong. Each country has several homegrown breeds (I was particularly charmed by the French Chanson-de-Guerre, the “song of war”), and they are pivotal in the military history of the world. The care and detail Novik has put into her dragons is evident by the variety of breeds and the logic of breeding dragons and raising them. The historical research feels flawless, and the dragons manage to feel just as period. I was especially enthralled by how the Far East saw dragons, although we don’t hear much about it in His Majesty’s Dragon. (I think we might in later books.) I was a bit confused as to how the dragons are harnessed and crewed (something that strongly reminded me of Leviathan), but Novik provides some notes at the end that are quite enlightening. They also contain some of the dragon lore she wasn’t able to easily integrate into the novel, including several British lineages. Not only are those notes quite interesting, they also show restraint in the novel itself, which I’m over the moon about.
However, His Majesty’s Dragon has a huge problem–it lacks tension and conflict. There’s no real conflict until very late in the novel. It focuses mostly on Laurence and Temeraire getting used to each other and the Aerial Corps. His Majesty’s Dragon is lucky in that the world is so interesting and the characters are so charming that you almost don’t mind it, but the continued adventures of Laurence and Temeraire can drag. Laurence comes to terms with and resolves a lot of his conflicts on his own, determining to be a better man and learning to love the Aerial Corps. Without conflict, we’re just exploring Novik’s world of Napoleonic dragons. Towards the end, I sighed and said, “Do something!” to the novel. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, the slow pace and lack of conflict was quite troubling. Because of the world and my interest in Novik’s Asia, I might pick up some of the later novels, but this isn’t going to be required reading for me in the future.
Bottom line: While Temeraire and Laurence are wonderful and utterly charming characters in a very solid alternate history, His Majesty’s Dragon lacks the tension and conflict necessary for a satisfying novel until the very end. If you’re interested in the world, it’s well worth it, but if you’re itching for action and adventure, I’d give it a miss.
I rented this book from the public library.