Tuesday, September 29, 2020

His Majesty's Dragon

His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

Will Laurence has a promising career as a prize-taking frigate captain in the Royal Navy during his country's conflict against Napoleonic France. Even that career earns frowns from his father, Lord Allendale, who would prefer that his younger sons go into the clergy. But when a ready-to-hatch dragon's egg turns up in the cargo hold of a captured French man-o'-war – nay, when the just-hatched reptile refuses to be harnessed by anyone but Laurence – all his ambitions and prospects go out the cabin window. The young dragon, scarcely out of the shell, begins talking to him, exchanges polite greetings, allows Laurence to give him a name – the young captain loses his head and names him Temeraire, after a famous warship – and accepts a bridle, effectively swearing both of them into His Majesty's Aerial Corps. For naval guns and army maneuvers are all very well, but everone knows that the key battles of the Napoleonic wars can only be fought in the sky, between two air forces in which human officers and crewmen harness dragon power.

At first, Laurence is a bit discouraged by the sudden end of his naval career, his hopes of marrying a certain young lady, and all the other comforts a gentleman can expect from polite society. But very quickly, he and the growing dragonet form a bond. It would not be hyperbole to say that the first part of this book is a love story between a man and his dragon. The last two pages of that section are as warm and movingly tender as anything I have ever read. And so it's already past the time for me to try disguising the fact that I fell in love with this book, and stayed in love with it all the way to the end.

After the first test, whether Laurence and Temeraire will stay together in the aerial service, Part II moves on to their training at a Scottish covert, where they meet a variety of other dragons and their human handlers. Temeraire grows up, and together they learn all kinds of air warfare maneuvers. Dragons turn out, even to Laurence's surprise, to be the equals if not (in some cases) the superiors of the men and women they serve with – and pray, pay attention to that "and women" bit. The women of the Corps are ahead of their time, for reasons (and with results) you'll have to read the book to understand. But I assure you, it's worth the reading.

They see action in Part III, and Temeraire shows rare qualities that, according to a leading scholar on dragon breeds, may be a sign of different kinds of trouble to come. Like, apparently, the young dragon belongs to a breed jealously guarded by the Chinese and reserved for imperial use alone. Like, apparently, his egg was meant as a gift to Napoleon himself. And as a traitor reveals, after nearly getting the best of Laurence, Temeraire and friends, the Corsican upstart resents having his bespoke dragon harnessed by a British officer. Besides the consequences of this in their first book of adventures, it seems this may lead to further developments as the series continues.

At the risk of repeating myself, I love this book. I love-love it. I love, love, love it. All right, enough repeating myself. It's a book showing the results of wide and deep research into the history, methods and manners of naval warfare. It's also a beautiful piece of writing exhibiting powerful imagination, an eye for scenery, and ear for dialogue, a knack for depicting thrilling action and a compelling storyline, and just a tremendous talent overall. I want to read more books by this author. I want to read them all.

Originally titled Temeraire, this book won a John W. Campbell Best Book award, actually beating two of my favorite books by Brandon Sanderson. It's also the first of nine books in the "Temeraire" series, followed by Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, Victory of Eagles, Tongues of Serpents, Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants and League of Dragons. Naomi Novik is also the author of Will Supervillains Be on the Final?, Spinning Silver, the Nebula and Mythopoeic Fantasy Award winner Uprooted, a collection titled Golden Age and Other Stories and, coincidentally released this very day, A Deadly Education.

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