HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGONA novel by Naomi Novik
(2006, Del Rey)
Temeraire, book 1
When the Captain of a Royal Navy ship takes a dragon egg as its prize, his life is uprooted as he joins the aerial battle against Napoleon's dragons, and forms a bond unfathomable by his former life.
-- First reading (hardcover)
I liked Temeraire, and I liked Laurence. The story was one of getting to know these two characters, and a few ancillary ones, and the world they live in. The story progressed in a very straightforward manner, without any big plot twists, and only a few surprises. Laurence is a very practical man, who has to be, in his position. He is reasonable, follows the rules, and makes very detailed observations about people, situations and strategy.Spoiler review:
This is a fish-out-of-water story, where somebody moves from one highly regarded branch of the military service to another one, which is much less well-regarded. He is forced to leave everybody he knows behind, for love of his dragon and because there are stereotypes that his family and fiancée cannot disregard.
Even Laurence had trouble with the stereotypes when he won the dragon egg from the French ship they boarded. Discovering that the egg would hatch within days, he dreaded losing one of his finest crew-members to the aerial corps, the people who flew dragons into battle. But when the dragon does hatch, it rejects the chosen crewman, and chooses Captain Laurence instead. He would prefer to let the dragon go wild, but accepts his duty to the Crown without complaint, resigning his commission, and giving his first lieutenant a field promotion.
I found Temeraire to be a little too compliant at first. He didn't put up any trouble, or complain, or create havoc among the men while they were at sea. There was no hint of wildness in the dragon at all.
The aerial corps does try to replace him when he arrives on land, but he and Temeraire have bonded such that the dragon refuses his new master. This gives Laurence some enemies among the corps, but it doesn't last long, because Laurence's character is so above reproach that they all come to see how good he is. If there is any fault in this book, it is that everybody gets along so well, or are willing to get to know the others so that they understand and accept them for who they are. That is too forward-thinking for our current era, and though I don't know the 17th Century in any way, I feel that it is not realistic at all.
Regardless, the characters of Laurence and Temeraire felt real. Every book has to present obstacles for its main characters to overcome, and this book provided a few of them, to which the characters responded honorably.
The first comes when they arrive at the training grounds and Laurence sees that one of the dragons appears to be maltreated. He befriends this dragon, and has the groundsmen relieve his harness and keep him properly maintained. Temeraire likes to bathe in the sea, so they invite this dragon to come with them. Meanwhile, Laurence makes friends with one of the men, a courier of noble birth, somewhat similar to Laurence's upbringing. They keep apart from the other dragonriders, mostly because they both feel like outsiders. Laurence feels fine about this, because the others don't seem to want to associate with a Navy man. It is only later that Laurence discovers his new friend is the owner of the mistreated dragon, to which he responds almost violently. His bond with Temeraire makes him feel it is impossible to put anything above his dragon, but obviously some people don't feel that way. They part company after that, but the man becomes a hero for delivering crucial news in the book's climax, unfortunately at the expense of his dragon, who dies. Laurence and the others are so angry about this, that he drags the Captain to his dying dragon, so it may die happy for the attention it never normally got.
Temeraire faces another challenge, this one more exciting, on the way from the training grounds to their post near Dover. Napoleon sent a task force to intercept them, and they had to fight their way out. The tactics that they practiced, which we didn't really get to see, were displayed to good effect here, and they won their way out because of smart thinking and dragon bravery, especially by Temeraire, who can hover on a dime, something other dragons apparently can't do.
Laurence has trouble, initially, with the female Captains, as it is unheard of for a woman to be in the service. But they do their part, and one even seduces Laurence. Apparently the Longneck dragons, valuable because they can spit acid, prefer female riders.
The climax of the book comes in two stages. First, we learn that the Frenchman who has been helping them is himself a double-agent, offered a pardon by Bonaparte if he could capture of kill Temeraire, who was supposed to belong to the French Emperor. When he couldn't make himself try to kill the black dragon, he tries to blackmail Lily, the acid-spitting dragon of Captain Catherine Harcourt by threatening her life. Laurence saves her in heroic fashion.
Throughout their residence in Dover, they note that Napoleon has been building large boatlike structures, though he can't hope to overcome England's navy. It turns out that he intends to fly his troops over the channel on airships held aloft by dragons! I should have seen this coming. The battle to prevent these troop-ships from crossing is fierce, and well-described. The English dragons fight well, but are outnumbered several to one. It takes a long time to destabilize one carrier, then two, but there are a dozen of them, and the dragons can't repel them. A few of them land, even with dragons crashing into them, and using other tactics to overtax the ferrying dragons.
It is Temeraire who wins the day, of course. Desperate to do anything, he emits a subsonic roar that resonates with the troop-ships, causing the wood to break apart, a dragon skill that nobody has ever seen before. So the French troops, faced with this unknown danger that is causing their ships to break, turn back. It turns out that this is unique to one kind of dragon in the world.
It is later that Laurence discovers that Temeraire is actually a Celestial Dragon, the rarest of all, and the Chinese are furious that an Emperor is not master, as has always been the case, for centuries.
As an introduction to a new series, I thought this book did a good job. The characters were well drawn, and the several action sequences were well scripted. The book was very steady, never dropping to a boring part, though it rarely peaked, either. With experience, I'm sure the author will be able to deliver a story with the perfect blend of elements. I look forward to returning to this series.
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