Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.
This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Temeraire/His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik.
We’re treating this review as a straight-up, simple review with Ana’s and Thea’s takes. We’ll give our opinions regarding the book, then we’ll ask YOU to join in.
Title: Temeraire/His Majesty’s Dragon
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey / Voyager
Publication date: First published 2006
Paperback: 353 pages
Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature.
Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.
Stand alone or series: First in the Temeraire series
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
Well, quelle surprise. This did not go as I expected. For some reason, I always assumed (expected, thought) that this book would be all the alternate-history version of the Napoleonic Wars, only with some side dragons thrown there as villains. I KNOW. Instead, what I got was this deeply emotional adventure following the developing bond between a man and a dragon in the context of a war raging far in the background (Ok, so maybe not that far in the background. I will admit that I skipped a lot of the action sequences just so I could get to the scenes between Laurence and Temeraire, and between Temeraire and everybody else. What, I am allowed to just be a reader for these readalongs, right?).
So here is the thing for me when it came to Temeraire: more than a smart alternate version of our world with added dragons, the strength of this book is in the relationships – not only between Laurence and Temeraire but between Laurence and the crew of aviators he comes to meet and rely on; between Temeraire and the other dragons in the compound; between Laurence and his new situation out of the navy and into new deep waters and as a dragon handler. The latter was really interesting in the way that it placed Laurence in situations where he had to constantly question the societal/political mores he had known up until that point when it came to gender relations, power dynamics and social strata. Coming to respect his fellow aviators as equals and to see women as fully capable to engage in the very same profession was part of his journey and one that I appreciated very much. Also, awesome lady aviators.
The choice of having Laurence as viewpoint narrator is perfect of course, because although he lives in this world and therefore needs no introduction to this alternate-version of Europe, he is still very new to the world of dragon-handling and as such he functioned really well as the person to follow into this new adventure.
And I am not much of a dragon person but boy how much did I love this group of characters? Lots and lots. But as much as I loved Temeraire and his fellow dragons, there is one lingering question at the back of my mind: why. Even though there are dragons in positions of power, WHY are the dragons subordinate to the will of humans? WHY, when they are as smart (and sometimes more even) and much BIGGER? WHY don’t they revolt and take over THE WORLD and then train humans as their handlers? Is there really a choice there for the dragons, to be paired with those humans and then be used as weapons especially as they are portrayed as sentient, smart creatures? Is this something that is addressed in the course of the series? I plan on finding out.
And finally: LEVITAS. *sobs forever*
I will preface this review by saying that I am a fool. A FOOL. I’ve had a copy of His Majesty’s Dragon on my TBR for years. I received said copy at New York Comic Con 2011, and it’s autographed by Naomi Novik – whom I had the pleasure of quickly meeting after listening to her speak on a panel. I mean, LOOK AT THIS AWESOMENESS:
Cool Laurence and Temeraire doodle and EVERYTHING!
This is why I am a fool: because I have had this book in my possession for years – literally years – and I haven’t read it.
Because His Majesty’s Dragon? It is awesomesauce.
I loved this book. Like Ana, I had some weird, unfair preconceived notions about what to expect when starting the Temeraire series. I was expecting some kitschy Eragon-esque wish-fulfillment type novel (sorry, Eragon fans), or a mundane tome about war with dragons. I certainly was not expecting this powerful tale of friendship and affection, of heartfelt characters in a fast-paced, alternate historical setting that manages to make me care about the Napoleonic wars (sorry again).
I repeat, His Majesty’s Dragon is awesomesauce.
I agree with Ana that the book’s greatest strength lies with its incredible characterizations – not just of human rider, Laurence, who is our main protagonist, but of the dragons, too. Temeraire is an incredible character who chafes at the notion of duty and prides himself on free will. Too, Temeraire questions his origins and abilities, and while he yearns to do right by his obligations, he will sacrifice everything for the safety of his beloved friend. In contrast, Laurence is a reserved and straight-laced navy man; his struggle and character arc originates with being stripped of his future at sea as a captain and being thrown into the life of an Aviator. As a Naval Captain, Laurence keeps his emotions and temper on a short leash and also understands the value of duty before his own desires. And yet… though Laurence insists in his narrative on checking his temper and abiding by the chain of command, there are flashes of emotion that speak to a hidden rebellious streak. Take, for example, Laurence’s upbringing: the son of a gentleman, Laurence chooses to go to sea instead of the clergy despite his father’s wishes, and despite having made a half-formed attachment to a gentleman’s daughter to take on as wife. Or, for another example, take his decision to look after the neglected dragon Levitas. While Laurence may act restrained and abides by a strict moral code, he is also a creature of suppressed powerful emotion – and those flashes we see are wondrous.
Again and again while reading this book, the following thought occurred to me: the relationship and bond between Temeraire and Laurence reads almost like a great regency romance, albeit in a non-romantic setup (maybe it’s just me, though?): there’s an instant attachment and bond between the pair, a fierce sense of mutual possession and belonging, the unshakable truth that either would sacrifice anything to be together, forever. The way that Naomi Novik plays with these emotions and tropes is utterly fascinating and undeniably brilliant; she forges an emotional bond that mimics human love and relationships in a cross-species, platonic way, and it is wholly satisfying. The same can be said for the relationships between other Aviators and their Dragons (or, Dragons and their Aviators if you prefer). I loved the gruffly affectionate interchanges between Maximus and Berkley, and especially the reserved Lily and Harcourt, or the aforementioned Levitas. Suffice it to say, the bonds between dragons and riders, between dragons and other dragons, and aviators amongst one another are nuanced and explored beautifully in His Majesty’s Dragon.
Also nuanced and carefully explored is the historical setting of the series. I have little interest in the Napoleonic Wars or reading alternate history about this particular period, and yet with the introduction of aerial warfare and talking dragons, I found the setting (and the portentous battles) not only palatable, but fascinating. Novik There are surprising characters, and developments, too, that counteract the same old white male historical fantasy mold – there are female dragons and riders in His Majesty’s Aviary, and commanding officers are not at all what you might expect. I also appreciated the exploration of prejudices that Aviators face – many prejudices that Laurence himself had, initially! – as well as the divide between the Aviators and the Navy. There are misunderstandings, preconceived notions and other tension-fraught exchanges as Laurence goes from one branch of service for King and Country to another, and it is a wholly entertaining struggle.
On the negative side, however, I can recognize my own biases: intellectually, I know that this is not really a groundbreaking or perfect story. There are overtones of Pern here, and the main duo of Laurence and Temeraire are almost too good to be true. Temeraire is a Super Special Rare Dragon, Laurence can basically do no wrong, and together the pair is utterly Mary Sue (Gary Stu?)-ish. Similarly, while the historical background is realized nicely, the actual war is far in the background of this book. Far more time is spent on the emotional bonds between dragon and rider, and the training and censure they endure before becoming battle-ready. Things develop a little on the slower side, and while many small vignette scenes are entertaining, they aren’t actually necessary to advancing the overall story.
That said, I didn’t mind any of this. Not one bit.
Because the truth is, when writing is this entertaining, and when dealing with lovable, fully-fleshed characters like Laurence and Temeraire? I’m more than happy to take off my critic hat, and, like the straight-laced Laurence, let out a good joyful whoop of delight.
I will absolutely be back for more, and plan on reading Throne of Jade very soon.
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 8 – Excellent
And now we turn it over to you! Sound off and let us know what you thought of His Majesty’s Dragon!