Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Review: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

I've had His Majesty's Dragon, the first of the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik on my to-read list for quite some time. Having dragons in the Napoleonic wars sounded like an excellent plot point: fantasy combined with history. After being reminded about the series by a colleague at work, I decided to go ahead and read it and find out what it was all about.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
This was a pretty fun, casual book about dragons in history. Naturally, there are no dragons in real life so this is an alternate history set in the early 1800s, that shows how the world is different when you add dragons to it. While the plot and characters are fine, the real driver of the story is the dragon Temeraire and his relationship to his captain as they grow and train together to join the Aerial Corps to defend Great Britain against France and other threats.

The plot is fairly simple and goes along at a fair clip. The idea behind is to mostly follow the life story of Temeraire, as seen through his captain. There's some action throughout the book, as Temeraire trains and engages in various missions, but mostly we see a more general progression of the developing relationship between the dragon and his captain. In the background, however, are various events regarding Napoleon's conquests in Europe. These serve to give some historical context and to provide some distant, but growing threat. Other than that, there is actually little tension in most of the book as Temeraire is very talented and accepted very quickly, and Captain Laurence worries about his family, his career, etc, end up being mostly inconsequential. Part of that is the whole aspect of show-not-tell: for most of the book we are told how Laurence's life has changed, rather than being shown. The few moments where we are explicitly shown this do work well (eg, his father's meeting). Perhaps we'll get to see more of that in future novels.

The story primarily revolves around Captain William Laurence and his relationship with the dragon Temeraire. There are a handful of secondary characters, both human and draconic, but in the end we spend the most time with Laurence and Temeraire. While at first it may seem that such a relationship may be like that between a man and his pet or a horse, it actually ends up being more like a very close friendship. Laurence and Temeraire quickly become fiercely loyal to each other and this is reflected of most of the other human-dragon teams in the Aerial Corps. Laurence is a bit of bland protagonist, which is a bit of a detriment to the book.

Setting / World Building
The novel is set in the early 1800s with Napoleon Bonaparte starting some trouble in Europe. Unlike the real world, however, dragons are a prominent part of warfare. So in addition to ground and naval troops, there is also an aerial component to consider. Dragons are bred for war, at least in Europe, and Great Britain and France vie for control of the skies. We hear of different dragons elsewhere, such as the Chinese dragons which are bred for intelligence and beauty, so I wouldn't be surprised to see other nation's dragons appearing in the subsequent novels. It's pretty cool to see a fantasy world firmly set in real history, but with one small tweak (well, the dragons are actually pretty large) to spice things up.

It was very cool to see how the dragons are used in battle and what the different breeds are. The one thing I didn't particularly like, despite it being explicitly addressed, was how the dragons learned language. Still, that's just nitpicking a bit since other than that the dragons were pretty neat. They were also a lot larger than I expected, which also changes how they are used in battle. At the end of the book, there is a brief appendix with additional information on dragons, particularly the various breeds.

Final Thoughts
This was an enjoyable book. While the plot or characters aren't incredibly amazing, they are still decent and the setting is very cool. I'll certainly be looking into real history to see how this novel and the subsequent ones compare. I did enjoy Temeraire as a dragon and the Epilogue sets the stage for future conflicts that will be interesting to read about. If you like dragons and history, you may enjoy His Majesty's Dragon.

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