Dragons are a fantasy cliché I am not particularly fond of. Not that it cannot be used to great effect but I rarely encounter books where the author gets the best out of the cliché and manages to do more with dragons than emphasizing the fantasy setting. My girlfriend on the other hand loves fantasy tales with dragons in them. There's a whole stack of McCaffrey's Pern books right behind me on a the cupboard (shelf space is a bit of a rare commodity in this house, or maybe we just own too many book). It is not altogether surprising she picked up this series a while ago and loved them. Since my to read pile mostly consists of science fiction at the moment and I was not in the mood for one of those, I picked up Novik's first Temeraire novel. His Majesty's Dragon proved to be a fun read.
The year is 1805. After defeating the armies of the second coalition France, now fully under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte seems to be firmly in control on the continent. He has cast his eye on the one enemy remaining undefeated, the British Empire. The British suspect Napoleon has plans for an invasion of Britain and are gathering a new coalition against him. If any attempt of an invasion are to be successful Napoleon will have to deal with the British fleet however and it is men such as Captain Will Laurence's job to prevent the French from dominating the seas.
Under his command the HSM Reliant captures a French frigate. Given the condition of the ship this is not much of an achievement but the cargo it turns out to be carrying makes it worth the effort. The British have captured a dragon egg that is about to hatch. It puts Laurence in a difficult position. When the dragon hatches it needs to be harnessed right away for it to be useful in aerial combat. Harnessing the dragon means a life dedicated to the aerial corps, making the captain of the dragon a social outcast. Laurence must sacrifice one of his crew to attempt to harness the dragon and he can't very well demand a sacrifice of his men he is not willing to make himself. His life is about to be turned upside down.
For the most part His Majesty's Dragon is a historical novel, the dragons play an important role in the story but they are the only fantasy element Novik has added. Appart from the dragons Novik follows the course of history as we know it. As such, the end of the novel does not come as a great surprise but I can't say that bothered me much. In Laurence Novik creates a very believable early 19th century British captain. His belief in the strength of his nation and its political system are unshakeable. Although he does appreciate Napoleon's achievements on the continent in a way he still thinks him a tyrant. Something that in the light of what we now consider political freedom is quite amusing at times.
The Dragon, and I suppose given my views on this particular fantasy concept this should not come as a surprise, is slightly more problematic. One of the minor characters in the book tries to approach the subject in a scientific fashion. Suspension of disbelief most certainly was not enough to not laugh out loud at that. There's all manner of other impossibilities as well. England has quite a few dragons, France even more. The economics of keeping them fed in a time when livestock was quite valuable is beyond me. A large dragon can eat several cows a day apparently. Temeraire is also unreasonably gifted at languages.
Things like this would bother me in most novels but I must admit the combination of Temeraire's great intelligence and his naïveté is endearing. Given his background it is unavoidable that Laurence has different ideas on his new duty than most of the aviators raised to the aerial corps. It influences Temeraire's personality to a point and shapes the relationship between the dragon and his captain but it also has repercussions for the aerial corps. His Majesty's Dragon is a short and rather fast paced novel so there is not that much space to explore this. I expect it will be a theme in following books in the series.
His Majesty's Dragon is not the best fantasy novel I have read but it is a fast and fun read. It's one of those books you can easily read in a day. I was pleasantly surprised by how much liked this book. It combines a fascinating bit of history with a popular fantasy trope and the result is certainly worth reading. I'm pretty sure I will end up reading the second book sometime soon. Maybe my girlfriend's taste in books overlaps with mine to a greater extend than I thought. I will not read any more Pern novels though!
Title: His Majesty's Dragon
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2006