Naomi Novik, “His Majesty’s Dragon” (2006) – Probably not the best way to begin a review of a book to talk about another book altogether, but I really should get around to reading “Master and Commander.” I have a copy of it sitting on a shelf. I’ve read “Master and Commander But In Space,” i.e., one of David Weber’s space navy books. And now I’ve read “Master and Commander But With Dragons,” or, the first in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. I can’t even be sure how many of the shared tropes are really in the original work, but from context and what I remember of the Russell Crowe movie, it seems like there’s a lot. The new commander, earning the respect of their crew; learning the rites and rituals of the service; intimacies both warm and structured by custom and chain of command, on and on.
All that, but with dragons, is the premise of “His Majesty’s Dragon.” Everything about the world seems normal circa 1804 — there’s no additional magic — but dragons exist and are an important part of warfare. Royal Navy officer Will Laurence captures a French ship with a dragon’s egg. The egg hatches and the dragon imprints on Laurence, who names the dragon Temeraire. This imprinting means Laurence has to leave the Navy and join the dragon-borne Aerial Corps, a wild, wooly, and declasse bunch. At first Laurence is put out by this, and gets dumped by his sweetie, but he and Temeraire become close, flying is cool, and he’s an English officer, dammit, he does his duty.
Ships of the line were probably the most technologically advanced and complex systems of their day, and part of the “Master and Commander” genre appears to be immersing the reader in the management of and vocabulary adhering to keeping them going. Scifi writers like David Weber enthusiastically adopted this practice to allow them to geek out over their spaceships. There’s a lot going on with dragon combat, too, in Novik’s world. Much of the book is taken up with Laurence and Temeraire’s training and integration into the Aerial Corps. They fly around the Scottish countryside with other dragons, and we hear a lot of names of dragon breeds and their attributes. Laurence adjusts to such novelties as women officers (some of the dragons will only let women fly them). Novik describes the harnesses that allow bodies of men to stay aboard flying dragons throughout their combat maneuvers, dragon-borne battle tactics, etc.
Novik made the interesting decision to have her dragons come out of the egg capable of speech. I guess being a novel, she couldn’t go the “How To Train Your Dragon” route of having them just sort of mug and pantomime to communicate. Temeraire the dragon is somewhere between a cat and a child, supercilious, curious, fiercely attached to Laurence, basically good-hearted. As it turns out, he is a special breed with special abilities that come out in the nick of time to prevent a disaster. Pretty much all the fighting comes in the last fifth or so of the book. Truth be told, the balance between training and fighting being so heavily in favor of training didn’t really do it for me. The descriptions of aerial combat were all right, but not anything to write home about. And I am further biased: while I am critical of Napoleon, who in many ways wrecked the legacy of the French Revolution, I have a hard time getting myself to support the British aristocratic oligarchy against him, despite the efforts of two hundred years worth of propaganda, much of which has found its way into foundational tropes in a lot of fiction genres. For many readers, the premise — the Napoleonic Wars with dragons! — will be enough to get this book over. It is indeed a compelling premise, and Novik doesn’t waste it, but it was a little slow for my taste. ***