THE NAPOLEONIC WARS WITH 100% MORE DRAGONS
A stoic naval officer embarks upon a swashbuckling journey of duty, honour, loyalty, and above all else friendship.
(Temeraire, Book 1)
Genre: Alternate History, Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Format: Paperback, 352 Pages
Date: 16th June 2011 (First Published 2006)
Imagine, if you will, that you are a writer with an interest in a particular period of European history; the Napoleonic Wars, for example. You know that you would like to write a story about, and set during this period. But you have no interest in writing historical fiction. Instead you want to create an alternate history take of this time but want to avoid producing a conventional “what if?” story which simply changes the outcome of one or more specific events. You decide that you will write something much more to your liking by incorporating elements from a genre you do have an interest in writing; High Fantasy. What are the chances that your idea to make this alternate history tale a little more fantastical, amounts to: “just add dragons”? Not very likely. Yet this is essentially what author, Naomi Novik, has done with her début novel, Temeraire. (Also known as His Majesty’s Dragon.)
The meshing together of different genres can often make for surprising results; usually bad ones. All too frequently such books end up feeling very schizophrenic, as though their authors seemingly couldn’t make up their minds about what kind of story they wanted to write. Thus it was a risk on the part of Novik for Temeraire’s premise is almost as absurd as it is attention grabbing. But credit where credit is due, she has successfully pulled it off, writing an exciting story that actually works and is all the more enjoyable for it. In addition to which, Novik also plants a number of not so subtle seeds to set up sequel novels, making it abundantly clear that this is to be the first book of an ongoing series.
Entertaining though the story may be, its central premise is not one that lends itself to tackling deeper, thought-provoking concepts beyond its themes of friendship and duty. But that’s not necessarily a criticism; a novel doesn’t have to offer insightful social commentary or in depth character study to be engaging. So without wishing, in any way, to imply that Novik’s narrative is shallow, Temeraire is an unabashedly swashbuckling adventure in an alternate history world where man and dragon co-exist as integral facets of the fabric of civilisation. And it is probably for the best that it never attempts to be more than that.
In the end, Temeraire is not so much about the Napoleonic Wars, which for the most part merely serves as a backdrop, it is, at its heart, principally a tale about friendship and duty. This is illustrated through the journey of the book’s human protagonist, Will Lawrence, a captain serving in the British Royal Navy. A life changing journey that begins on the day Lawrence successfully engages a French naval vessel that offers an unusually prolonged and stiff resistance. Upon boarding the defeated ship, Lawrence and his crew discover an unidentified dragon egg which, unbeknown to everyone, was being delivered to Napoleon himself. Before it can be shipped back to Britain and handed to the Admiralty, the egg hatches. Lawrence is taken aback when the new born dragon, whom he subsequently names Temeraire, is able to speak and chooses him to be his human rider.
Tradition dictates that when a dragon selects a human companion, that person is required to abandon his or her old life for a new one; the relationship between dragon and rider is a “til death do us part” kind of deal. Though Lawrence is given the option to turn down the opportunity, his strong sense of duty to king and country prevents him from doing so. He fully accepts his new calling even though it means not only sacrificing his career in the Royal Navy, and the termination of the engagement to his fiancée, but also earning the further scorn of his father.
Novik’s story proves to be a surprisingly heart-warming one, with much of the book given over to to the burgeoning friendship between Lawrence and Temeraire as they undertake the training necessary to join Britain’s squadron of dragons that serve as an airforce; as well as the pair’s efforts to identify the hitherto unknown origins of Temeraire who belongs to a species of dragon never seen in Europe before. Novik does an exceptional job of portraying the camaraderie and affection that Lawrence and Temeraire have for one another, and the unbreakable bond that develops between them.
Those readers who don’t particularly care for the relationship dynamic that is so central to the story, favouring fast moving action instead, will be pleased to learn that they are well served also. There are a number of great action sequences throughout the book, particularly during the final third, which help to illustrate how much thought Novik has put into the implications of how 19th century military forces might utilise dragons in warfare.
In the grand scheme of things, reading Temeraire will likely not change your life. But that said, it is an exciting and enjoyable, all be it, entirely predictable read from beginning to end; therefore worthy of any fantasy reader’s time. It also promises bigger and better things to come as the series moves forward.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.