(2006) Naomi Novik, Harper Collins, hrdbk / pbk, £12.99 / £6.99, 330pp, ISBN 10-0-007-21909-1 / 0-007-21911-3
US paperback re-titled as His Majesty's Dragon
Ballantine Del Rey, pbk, US$7.50, 356pp, ISBN 0-345-48128-3
Set in an alternative Britain (United Kingdom) in 1804/05 in the run up to the battle of Trafalgar, Temeraire (titled His Majesty's Dragon in the US) presents a fantastic view of this chapter of counter European history where dragons and their riders are a crucial part of the battle against Napoleon and his allies.
The story starts with Captain William Laurence of the HMS Reliant -- a British warship -- capturing a French Frigate. In the bloody battle to secure the prize, as captured enemy ships were termed in the British navy, an item of even greater value is discovered in the captured vessel's hold: a Dragon egg which is about to hatch! With no training and second hand knowledge the officers and crew set about preparing for the hatchling as they are three weeks from any land and expert help. Dragons must be bonded to their handlers at birth or they become feral and cannot be used in the Air Corps with its vital role in the protection of the skies. A hapless candidate is chosen by lottery but the dragon ignores the terrified young officer and instead chooses Captain Laurence! From this point on Laurence's life will never be the same as in King George III's Britain the Air Corps is not a career chosen by respectable gentlemen. A future awaits him of living apart from mainstream society, respected but never the less feared, all hope of creating an estate or achieving proper status in society lost and bound 'til death to the dragon.
This book, and the subsequent series (Throne of Jade and Black Powder War, plus three more in the pipeline), has received a whole shelf-load of great reviews -- I would like to add one more. As a life long lover of both fantasy and historical naval fiction I can happily say that this is the best book I have ever read that brings the two genres together. It is also probably the best book I have read for some time and I was almost unable to put it down.
Many reviewers have compared Novic's writing to other authors led by Stephen King's '..cross between Susanna Clarke and Patrick O'Brian' review remark. In this case I think this is a lazy approach and wide enough from a useful comparison to be misleading or, more kindly, unnecessary. The Susanna Clarke comparison is not a good guide and I must digress, briefly, to make my case. The only simple similarity I can glean between this book and Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell is that it is set in broadly the same period of history (1804/05 for Temeraire, 1806 - 17 for Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell). The folding of the fantastical concept, here dragons instead of magicians, into well researched historical setting is comparably adroit but the books are from entirely different parts of the genre. Put simply there is no magic in Temeraire and the writing style is a very different. At a deeper level Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell is set up as an fictional/alternative historical treatise and reads as such. Novick's style is supremely tight, there is not a spare word in this book, and the story is a rip-roaring unpredictable adventure. Don't start the hate mail please fans of Ms Clarke; Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell is a great book. For 'hard' fantasy fans there are few in its class, in my opinion as well as many others. I would not however 'throw' it to a friend as an introduction or as a representative first read in the genre; if nothing else they would probably drop it and hurt their toes and at points it makes Tolkien's Silmarillion seem readable!
The Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin series (the Aubreyad to the initiated) comparison is a valid guide, as is that with the equally brilliant C.S. Forester 'Hornblower' series (inspiration, I believe, for a popular long-running infinitive splitting TV, film and book SF franchise). Novic like these masters of 'Age of Sail' naval fiction shares the ability to transport you to that period of history with a few well-chosen phrases. You can smell the salt spray, gunpowder and half chewed cows as well as feel the fear, the wind in your face and the power of the dragon as you cling to its neck. Her use of period reference, historical accuracy and language as well as the social class distinctions, is almost faultless as is her drawing of an elite, if scruffy, band of misfits within a greater backdrop of the society of the twilight of George III's reign.
A further common comparison is with Anne McCaffrey. Not being compared with McCaffrey when you write about dragons is probably akin to getting a fail mark in elementary English. There are some similarities, why wouldn't there be? There are only so many ways of constructing a believable scenario where a very (very) big, immensely powerful, sentient animal does what a monkey asks it to do (most of the time) within a given fictional scenario. Thus the rider bonding process, the lifestyle (sort of), and certainly the relationship between rider and dragon are comparable. Yet the style and nature of the works are very different. McCaffrey's Chronicles of Pern are a cross genre masterpiece delighting science fiction and fantasy fans alike. Where McCaffrey draws a whole new world in a different part of the galaxy in Temeraire Naomi Novik has, with artistry astonishing in a debut, done the same cross genre slight of hand for 'Age of Sail' and fantasy.
Naomi Novik achieved a rare thing in this debut novel, her writing style is neither derivative nor celebratory of 'greater forbears' she is a great writer and equal to them in one step. With exciting and intricate battle and combat training, compelling and subtly drawn male and female characters expertly weaved into a storyline which captures the rigid, status obsessed and war stressed society of the time you could not ask for more. But you get more, so much more, the beautifully crafted dragons and I leave those for you to discover.
A superb contribution to the genre as a stand-alone book and a tantalising start, to what is set to be a great series. I will be really cross if someone else in the Concatenation team gets to review the rest of them.
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