“It’s the Napoleonic War. With DRAGONS,” my husband said to me as he pretty much dropped Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon on my lap and walked away. Well, okay then. How could I possibly resist? As t turns out, I really couldn’t. It was such good fun.
The book starts in about 1804, during the War of the Third Coalition, the war where France, under Napoleon I, defeated the alliance consisting of Great Britain, the Holy Roman Empire, Russia, and others. William Laurence, captain of the HMS Reliant, seized a French frigate and discovers a dragon egg which is close to hatching. In order to be able to use the soon-to-be-born dragon in Britain’s Aerial Corps, the dragon needs to be harnessed and bond with its handler almost immediately after birth. Although every man was prepared to attempt to harness the dragon, the dragon chooses Laurence as his handler. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, and Laurence is plunged into the less polite and much less respected Aerial Corps. Despite his sudden and reluctant change in career, Laurence eventually finds his way in the aerial corps, and develops a very deep bond with Temeraire.
The plot is mostly driven by Laurence’s own discovery of this new world. Everyone knows that there are dragons who are in the service of the various military wings of all the nations at war, but in Britain, the Aerial Corps tend to be isolated, regarded with suspicion, and more than a bit mysterious. Novik has us learn alongside Laurence all about how dragons are domesticated, for lack of a better word, the types of dragons, how they and their handlers are trained, and how battles are fought with dragons. I was particularly delighted by Novik’s decision to have an entire crew of people operate on a single dragon during a battle; it’s not just the handler and the dragon flying into battle, but also a crew to handle rigging and weapons, and so on. The physics of that possibility made my brain hurt a bit, but hey, if you’ve got dragons in the Napoleonic War, then just maybe you should ease off the physics.
I really enjoyed this entire learning curve, as well as wading though the world that Novik created. It was good fun to learn about the dragons and their various talents—some even spit acid!—and how the job of being a handler eventually changes even the most stubborn, formed personality. I very much enjoyed Novik’s introduction of dragon handlers who are women, and especially, Laurence’s reaction to them. It’s another moment of using Laurence as a learning tool for the reader, but it’s very effective; he never, in his wildest dreams, would imagine women fighting in battle alongside him, and yet, now he has to confront that reality. That reminds of the one thing that I didn’t really care for in Novik’s character of Laurence: he’s just such a perfect gentleman, focused on his duty at all times. I wanted him to be more resistant to this entire upheaval of his life, but no, it’s his duty, and he does it.
There’s also an undercurrent that runs through the book about Temeraire’s origins. He’s a prize captured from the French ship, but where did the French obtain his egg? His intelligence and capacity for learning are startling, as are his almost innate manners. I can’t say much for fear of giving away the reveal at the end, but this particular story line sets up the next book in a truly fantastic way. That also serves as my confession that I went directly from this book to the next book in the series.
I will say that if you’re looking for huge amounts of action, you need to be patient. This book has some fun aerial battles, but it’s not really about the action; it’s about training you, alongside Laurence, for what’s to come. It’s heavy on the universe-building, and a little lighter on the military action. That being said, you get plunged right into the action in the second book, and you need all background in order to truly grasp the enormity of some of the scenes.
All in all, it was really excellent, and it was good fun. I eagerly went from His Majesty’s Dragon right into Novik’s second book in series, Throne of Jade, and I can’t wait to pick up the third from the library.
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