Sunday, 16 March 2014

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

I am a little surprised by how much I liked this. The idea of the Napoleonic Wars with dragons seemed like something that could be either very good or very bad, and I've read enough overwrought fantasy the last little while (as well as some very good fantasy) that I was a little wary.

But I was pleasantly surprised. I can't say that this is one I loved, it's not one I feel evangelical about, but it's a very solid book and I enjoyed reading it.

Part of what I enjoyed was how restrained it was. This was not hyperbolic fantasy, this was fairly down-to-earth, and seemed to borrow a little in tone from the (very few) novels I've read by people like Patrick O'Brien, who write about naval life.

That impression may come from the lead character, Laurence, a navy man, ship's captain, and proud of his profession. Right up until he takes a French ship captive and finds a dragon's egg on board, about to hatch long before they can get to land. Dragons are in short supply, and possibly the key to holding England against Napoleon's invasion, and so he and his crew must see if they can get the baby dragon to bond with one of them.

Is anyone surprised if I say it ends up being Laurence?

He names his dragon Temeraire, after a ship of the fleet, and Temeraire is one of the places where the book really sold me. Dragons are, for the most part, easily as intelligent as humans. Some may be much more intelligent. Temeraire's voice is where this book really departs from the books it's most likely to be compared to, Anne McCaffrey's various dragon books. For one, he can talk out loud. In several languages. And he's a character in his own right, and that complexity adds a lot.

We see Laurence and Temeraire go through their training and early battles, and the book adapts nicely several concerns of early 19th century life, including taxonomy, ship/dragon crewing and chain of command, while creating a society that sits askew with mainstream life, particularly in terms of gender - for women are dragon captains as well.

But this is all done subtly, and the book emphasizes how much this group of people and dragons withdraws, rather than challenges. Laurence is relatively quick to adapt, but even he is taken by surprise.

This is all to say that this is a solid fantasy, if not one that set my world on fire. It feels very down-to-earth, and when you're talking about dragons, that's quite a feat.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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