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Dragons are tricky beasts to fit into historical novels. Naomi Novik’s excellent 2006 novel Temeraire (in the USA, His Majesty’s Dragon), about the fighting dragons of His Majesty’s Navy during the Napoleonic Wars explores this proposition with intelligent imagination. First, there is no telepathy, unlike the dragons of Pern in Anne’s McCaffrey’s extensive Dragonflight fantasy series. The dragons talk to their riders aloud in speech, and nobody knows what each other is thinking. Since the dragons function as bombers and fighter planes, this does introduce a little fantasy, of the pilot talking to his plane lovingly and reading it stories from Virgil at night, but this is fine. This dragon is so hungry to learn that it insists on instructing its rider on the higher mathematics of navigation after a day of practicing formation flying.
Second, the dragons are simply there, much as cows and eagles are there: no explanation is offered as to how dragons arrived or evolved. One of the most enjoyable parts of Temeraire is the Appendix at the end which gives a brief history of dragon physiology and their impact on human history. Napoleon wanted a Chinese Imperial dragon under his command, and Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Castile had dragons in their strategic planning as well. It’s remarkable how obvious dragons were in history, when you come to think about it.
Thirdly, Novik pays proper attention to sociology: how would dragons affect human society by their very existence, their unignorability (these creatures are BIG), and their meals? Since there are very few dragons, compared to humans; who gets to ride them? How does a class-based and patriarchal society cope when dragons hatch and Impress (borrowing a McCaffrey term, since Novik doesn’t invent one) on someone who is not from the middle or upper classes, or not a man? Since dragons have to be used in battle, how does Regency society cope with the existence of women in uniform, commanding their ground crews, and with the training of girls as apprentices in the ground crews so that when new eggs are ready to hatch, women and men can be available for the baby dragon to choose its rider? If a scion of a very proud dragon-riding family with a strong sense of entitlement doesn’t actually like dragons, considering them no better than servants, how do the other dragons and riders react when a dragon is ill-treated and neglected by the son of an Earl?
Temeraire begins in a setting familiar from C S Forester’s Hornblower series: on board ship, in battle with the French. Captain Will Laurence overpowers a French ship, and finds a dragon’s egg in the hold. This causes him consternation from a career point of view, because a man who Impresses a dragon will have to leave the Service, join the semi-outcast ranks of dragon-riders, and also say good-bye to any hopes of marriage or even family life, since dragon-riders are not part of polite society, and go where their service takes them. The egg hatches before the ship can get it back to dock, but when the terrified junior lieutenant Laurence has assigned for the task fails to make any impression on the dragon, Captain Laurence unexpectedly becomes Temeraire’s rider. His die is cast and his doom has come upon him. We learn about dragon-rider society from the appalled reaction of Laurence’s family, and of his fiancée whom he must now abandon, since no decent man can ask a lady to live among dragons. But we learn much more once Will is learning to ride Temeraire, how Temeraire grows, and produces his own developmental surprises, and how they train together with the other fighting dragons of the Fleet.
It’s a terrific novel, thoroughly worked out and very well written. Its internal consistency reinforces the delight of the leading idea. Temeraire is a lovely character, and his softening effect on Will, who is a bit stuffy and fixated on duty, is a pleasure to read. I had some conceptual difficulties with Temeraire’s size: if he can carry up to 20 people on his back and wings in full battle array, how big was his head, and how much room did he take up asleep? How many cows a day did a squadron of dragons get through, and were there any poaching issues, even among serving officers in His Majesty’s Navy? Naomi Novik has created a terrific counter-factual historical novel that imports dragons into known historical society, which is still adapting to their large, fire-breathing and immensely valuable existence. There are six other novels in the series, and Peter Jackson has, apparently, optioned them. Get on board now.
Naomi Novik, Temeraire (Harper Collins, 2006), ISBN 978 0 00 725871 0, £8.99
Naomi Novik’s homepage is here.
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