Del Rey, 2006, 356 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-48128-3
There is something in the DNA code of science-fiction and fantasy readers that makes Napoleon-era nautical adventures irresistible. C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornbower, Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey… those series seem to reach the same pleasure centres stimulated by good SF&F. You can find SF&F readers who haven’t read either author, but you’ll have a harder time finding SF&F fans who didn’t like those books.
So seeing Naomi Novik pick the Napoleonic era as a setting for a dragon-enhanced alternate history series isn’t too much of a stretch. The era is appealing, and her likely readership is reasonably familiar with the historical period, whether through Forrester and O’Brien, or through Austen, Trollope and other contemporary writers. Having the series follow in the wind of the Hugo award-winning Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell doesn’t hurt either.
So, yeah: The Napoleonic war with dragons. Simple enough, right?
But Naomi Novik is one of the first of a new kind of writer: those who have honed their skills in the on-line trenches of fan-fiction. As such, her writing is eager to please and structured around a series of sharp hooks and short dramatic loops. His Majesty’s Dragon starts right off with action and mystery: After a naval battle between a French frigate and an English warship captained by Will Laurence, the victorious English soldiers discover a dragon egg in the hold of the French ship. A dragon egg ready to hatch.
Before anyone can ask what a valuable dragon egg is going in the hold of a frigate travelling without escorts, the entire English crew is scrambling to bring the ship back home and make sure that the dragon is properly hatched. Given how a dragon imprints on the first human it sees, it’s crucial that the right man for the life-long commitment be there when it happens. Alas, that man turns out to be Laurence: within moment, his entire comfortable naval career is jettisoned: Forever attached to the dragon, his arrival in England sees him shunted to His Majesty’s Air Force. Far too old by novice pilot standards, Laurence quickly finds out that his dragon isn’t normal either. Temeraire, as the dragon is called, can speak like most dragons, but is of a very rare breed with above-average capabilities. Most of His Majesty’s Dragon is a novel of discoveries, as Laurence discovers how to behave like a pilot, and as everyone discovers what Temeraire truly is.
Cleverly written and engagingly plotted, Naomi Novak’s first novel is pure reading joy. It reactivates the dormant “swashbuckler” gene in SF&F readers’ DNA and delivers solid adventure, absorbing prose, good scenes and the first glimmer of a long-running series. Even those who think they don’t like dragons will have trouble stopping reading after a few chapters.
Novik has done her research and understands the lineage of dragon-themed stories: There are a few playful pokes at Anne McCafferey’s Dragonrider series, along with a good eye for practical concerns. Novik’s combat dragons are huge and require an entire support crew to man effectively, and that’s not even mentioning the sheer quantity of meat required to fuel those dragons.
This attention to detail, on the other hand, highlights the biggest conceptual trap in Novak’s conceit: The contradiction between a well-established historical era and an alternate world where dragons are an integral part of history. Surely their power would have been recognized and exploited earlier? Surely the entire geopolitical map would have been altered early on by air power and fast reliable communications?
On the other hand, alternate history is a game about how early the departure point should be. Too late, and pickier readers start to kvetch. Too early, and the series’ entire high concept goes away.
More serious is the short-dramatic-loop structure of the novel. While it’s rich in instant gratification and early story hooks, it eventually leads to a lack of continuing tension. Laurence ostracized by his fellow pilots? Resolved within pages. Laurence and Temeraire having a spat? Resolved within pages. A potential traitor within the ranks? Resolved within pages…
But even with those short loops, the novel does a fine, fine job at setting up the world and its characters. By the end of the book, a number of mysteries are kept in reserve, and everyone’s looking forward to the next adventures of Temeraire. By-the-numbers, perhaps, but nonetheless effective. It’s a good thing I bought the entire series so far…