His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. Copyrigt 2005. Fantasy. ISBN 9780345481283
In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, the HMS Reliant captures a French ship carrying precious cargo: an unhatched dragon. Since dragons bond with the first person they speak to, Captain William Laurence quickly finds himself having to reluctantly change military careers from the Royal Navy to the Aerial Corps, a stigmatized yet necessary branch specializing in training, flying, and fighting with dragons.
Style and Plot:
His Majesty’s Dragon is the first of the Temeraire series, and has a very promising start: a bracing sea battle against the French frigate Amitie. The reader is immediately drawn into the events of the novel: The Amitie is captured, the dragon egg hatches, bonds with Captain Laurence, and is named after a second-rate, the HMS Temeraire, which itself was named after a French ship that had been brought into British service. The first twenty pages go by fast.
However, the action drastically slows over the course of the next few chapters. The story remains interesting (Captain Laurence’s relationship with Temeraire and his mental and social adjustment to life as an aviator being the main focus), but not nearly as gripping as the first chapter. Author Naomi Novik does a good job in describing the military functions, giving us just enough detail to get an idea of the structure, but otherwise keeping it open and leaving room for expounding as she develops her alternate history. Unfortunately, she does the same thing with the book’s surrounding events. The setting is the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, just before the Battle of Trafalgar, but it’s very easy to forget this. Despite the fact that dragons, including Temeraire, are being trained and sent off to fight in this war, it’s not mentioned very often and readers will be liable to forget about it in between mentions.
Laurence’s progression through training in the Aerial Corps is fun to read, but lacks depth. He meets some stereotypical characters: A gruff captain with a heart of gold, the imperious and ignorant noble, a few people who are disrespectful just because. Learning about how things are done in the Corps is engaging (rules and regulations in the Corps seem to be fairly lenient despite it being the military, but how can you not be impressed by a dragon giving orders to other dragons and their handlers), but since it is just training, there isn’t any real tension, and nothing too important propels the story until about halfway through the book.
Our main character is Captain Laurence, a rather nondescript military man. He seems to be your typical British gentleman: he’s painfully polite (read: stilted, but so is a lot of dialogue from other characters), has a distant courtship with a young woman that’s soon cut off due to his demanding reassignment, the works. He’s likable enough, but it’s the surrounding events of the novel that force him to be remarkable, and even then he sometimes feels like just a vehicle.
Temeraire, on the other hand (claw?), has all the quirks and habits that Laurence lacks. He can speak both French and English straight from the shell (not without reason). He can hover in midair, something that almost no other dragons can do, regardless of age or experience. He’s one of the rarest breeds of dragons. He even has a special name (most dragons are given Latin names, such as Maximus, only one other British dragon in the Corps has a non-traditional name). Let’s face it: Temeraire is a little bit of a Gary Stu (Scaly Stu, in this case). However, his character as a revolutionary-minded dragon does cast some fascinating implications over the rest of the series, as he questions the way things are done and is often looking for better ways to do things.
The dragon Temeraire and Captain Laurence have an interesting relationship. Due to the sheer amount of attention dragons need during their training, members of the Aerial Corps are well-known for having no time outside of the Corps for anything like having a family—aviators are, for all intents and purposes, married to their dragons. Temeraire and Laurence quickly bond, to the point where Laurence starts calling him “my dear,” which can be a little disconcerting, coming from the reserved captain. Novik doesn’t skimp on underlining the importance of the dragon-handler relationship, though: Dragons are bonded to their handler from birth (and one particular breed of dragons makes a point of bonding only with women, making women an important part of the military and of the novel). They are supposed to depend on each other for many things—and bad things happen if a dragon is neglected by its handler.
The changes in world history that Novik makes to accommodate her ideas are well fleshed out and engaging, but this series is coming up on its ninth book, and will need a lot more depth to carry it all the way through. His Majesty’s Dragon gets 3 ½ out of 5 stars.