Book Review

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

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Title: His Majesty's Dragon
Author: Naomi Novik
Publication Info: Del Rey 2006
ISBN: 0345481283
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

I’m one of the few girls I know who didn’t really want a horse when growing up. Horses are nifty critters and all, and I loved Black Beauty as much as the next kid, but ungulates just don’t do all that much for me. I liked predators much better. Screw ponies—I wanted a dragon. I didn’t care about the magic crap, really; I mostly loved the idea of having a predator the size of a house be completely bonded to me. A huge predator that can talk and breathe fire: what’s not to love? But alas:

No, you can't have a dragon

That said, it still took about three different people thrusting Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon in my face before I sat up and took notice—then sat back down to read. Where I proceeded to be utterly glued to the book for the next day or so. Seriously, people, I was reading this book while stopped at traffic lights.

So some critics claim that all alternate histories have a hook, a one-line summary that encapsulates the premise of the universe; the hook for His Majesty’s Dragon would be “Holy crapping damn the Napoleonic War with motherfucking DRAGONS OMG DRAGONS SQUEE DRAGONS!”

OK, that “SQUEE DRAGONS” bit might be more editorial commentary than fact. But seriously. Napoleon. War. Dragons. How can you not squee? It’s as if Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series made hot sweaty love to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and the resulting children were totally fucking awesome instead of terrifying bastard children of mash-ups that should never have been.

In case you can’t tell, I liked the book. Like, a whole lot. I’m not sure I’d marry it, but I’d sure as hell make out with it at a party.

So, to sum this book up—not that it can in any way do it justice: In the alternate universe in which His Majesty’s Dragon is set, dragons are real, and have been tamed and selectively bred, mostly for military purposes. When Captain Will Laurence of the Reliant captures the French frigate Amitié, he doesn’t expect its crew to put up such a fierce fight—and he certainly doesn’t expect to find a dragon egg in the hold. England’s Aerial Corps is always in need of more dragon stock, and the egg will increase the bounty money he will receive for the captured frigate by quite a bit, but when he finds out from the ship’s doctor that the egg is on the verge hatching, with the ship weeks away from land, his elation turns into trepidation. Dragons need to be harnessed and bonded to a human as soon as possible after hatching, or they run the risk of becoming feral. There are no aviators on the ship—and nobody eager to step up to the role, either, aviators being pariahs of sorts in His Majesty’s service, with most of them being sent away to train with dragons at seven years of age, and forever tied by their bond to their dragons to live life apart from most of society.

Laurence comes up with a makeshift solution: they pick the aviator-to-be by lot. What he doesn’t expect, however, is that the dragon has his own ideas about who he wants to be harnessed to when he hatches—he completely ignores the chosen officer, and instead picks Laurence.

Laurence is far from excited at this development. His father, Lord Allendale, is a stern sort with very definite ideas about suitable occupations for his son, and Laurence had already earned his ire by daring to join the Royal Navy against his wishes. Being an aviator will put Laurence beyond the pale, not to mention end all his hopes with a certain young woman with whom he’s had an understanding of sorts for years.

Laurence soon finds out, however, that Temeraire provides more than ample compensation for his losses, as the two of them truly bond and are initiated into the world of the Aerial Corps. Plenty of adventures await them, as they discover just what sort of dragon Temeraire is, and Laurence learns some interesting truths about aviators, the aviator-dragon bond and dragons themselves.

I find it difficult to describe how delightful I found this book. Intellectually, I can pinpoint a few niggling flaws. There’s a predictability to the progression of the story, for instance—the moment I was introduced to certain characters, I immediately saw the trajectory of their fates, and pretty much all my expectations were proven right. And the shape of human history and society is a little bit too similar to our current reality for my tastes, given the huge implications of living with another sentient species capable of learning and speaking human languages with fluency.

But the less-than-stellar bits are more than compensated for by Novik’s deft hand at crafting a rollicking adventure story—and more than that, her way of creating believable characters who charm and infuriate and burrow their way into my heart and my brain. (Mmmmm, brain parasite comparisons FOR THE WIN!) Temeraire is a delight; he’s charming, independent, funny and hugely intelligent—in many ways, his intellect outstrips Laurence’s. And Laurence himself is a breath of fresh air. Romancelandia is populated with rogues—in Dungeons and Dragons terms, most heroes are either Chaotic Good or Chaotic Neutral. Laurence, on the other hand, is just a touch stiff-rumped (though it unstiffens somewhat as the book proceeds, and we all know how much I loves me some unstiffened rump); he loves his proprieties, and he’s a big proponent of order and discipline. He comes across as an utterly convincing product of his time and upbringing, and I hadn’t realized how heartily sick I was of the alpha hero who forges his own path, devil take the hindmost, until I encountered Laurence.

But the best part of the book by far is the unfurling of Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship. The dragon-aviator bond is all-consuming—even mildly creepy at times, when you see the lengths to which some captains will go to ensure their dragon is taken care of—and Novik does an excellent job of portraying how that relationship develops, and making you feel that bond, that camaraderie and affection.

I said of Neverwhere that it made me read like a child, with a sort of captivated, wide-eyed wonder and an utter belief in the universe the author has created. His Majesty’s Dragon inspires the same in me. A good indicator of how well a fantasy world has worked for me is how much I wish the world were real after I close the covers and turn the final page. By that measure alone, this book is a resounding success. If you haven’t read this series yet, the fuck you waiting for? FUCKIN’ GO. READ IT. You won’t be sorry—that is, unless you for some perverse reason don’t enjoy reading things that are, y’know, UTTERLY GODDAMN AWESOME.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    I was half-afraid as I started reading this review that you were going to trash it…it’s got its flaws, as you rightly point out, in the railroading of the character arcs.

    But Temeraire (the UK title of the book) is the first dragon fantasy I’ve liked in a long time.

    Book four comes out in a few months. :-D

  2. 2

    Oh I LOVE LOVE Novik’s Temeraire.  I read all three and preordered the fourth.

  3. 3
    Ciara says:

    Loved this book.

  4. 4
    DS says:

    I almost didn’t read this book because of the amount of praise it had received.  After the first three books McCaffrey’s Pern books dragons made me break out in hives and then there was all of her imitators!

    However the history hook in this one grabbed me.  I’m a shameless admirer of Horatio Hornblower (before the serious eye candy of the latest tv adaption) and Laurence’s sense of honor and decency reminded me of Forester’s character.  She also writes good action scenes which is harder than a lot of writers seem to understand. 

    I read that this is supposed to be a trilogy.  She did an excellent job resolving enough issues in the first book to give it a satisfying ending though.

    Ooooh, the love of a boy for his dragon.

  5. 5
    Natalie says:

    This series was really a standout for me last year—absolutely among the best books last year.  And I have the fourth book sitting on my “to be reviewed” shelf and I can’t wait to get to it.

  6. 6
    Marianne McA says:

    Yes, I loved it, for all the reasons you mention.

    I reread the series a couple of months ago, and enjoyed Temeraire again, though for me, the second and third books didn’t stand up well under the reread. I think I like a more definite story arc, and more resolution than there was in the latter two books.

    Be interesting to see how Novik takes the story on – whether she will go for broke and rewrite 19thC. European politics, theology and history, or just weave the story round the edges of actual events.

  7. 7
    kardis says:

    Wow, I think I might have to try this book now. But the comment that I really wanted to make was this:

    Burninate the little girl, Trogdor! Then burninate the peasants.

    Thanks Candy!

  8. 8
    Teddy Pig says:

    Bianca D’Arc has that Dragon Knights series too.

    Maiden Flight owes quite a bit to Pern.

  9. 9
    Chris S. says:

    For DS:  It’s not a trilogy.  It’s an open ended series.  I managed to get my hands on an ARC of EMPIRE OF IVORY (Summary:  Read it!), and her editor at Bantam said that as far as she’s concerned, Novik could write them forever.

  10. 10

    His Majesty’s Dragon was one of those fantasy novels that provided that all-to-rare experience—it restored my sense of wonder.  I too was buttonholing SF and naval fiction fans I knew and telling them “Read this book!  Now!”

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it as well, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

    Oh, and Ms. Novik and I were on a panel at a SF con a few years back, and she’s delightful in person as well as on paper.

  11. 11

    I loved this book so very, very much. I also loved Book Two and Book Three. And I am anxiously awaiting Book Four.

    Y’all do know Peter Jackson’s optioned this series for possible movie making later on, yes? :)

  12. 12
    Ellen says:

    It’s not a trilogy.  It’s an open ended series.  I managed to get my hands on an ARC of EMPIRE OF IVORY (Summary:  Read it!), and her editor at Bantam said that as far as she’s concerned, Novik could write them forever.

    I actually saw Novik at Balticon (she read from the fourth book—squee!), and she said that she does have a definite end in mind for the series. Of course, I’ve forgotten how many books she said there would be, but I’m pretty sure she gave an absolute number.

    I loved Temeraire/His Majesty’s Dragon; I thought the second and third books faltered a bit before hitting their stride, but I’m still eagerly looking forward to #4. (It helps that the excerpt she read at Balticon was great.)

  13. 13
    snarkhunter says:

    You compared it to Aubrey/Maturin, and for good reason. I have it on very good authority that the Temeraire books are, in fact, Patrick O’Brien fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off.

    In other words, Naomi Novik once wrote fic with the premise, “What if Stephen Maturin were a DRAGON?” And then she turned it into a novel.

    Which makes me love the books just that much more, b/c how can you not love things that start with the basic premise that Stephen Maturin is a dragon?

  14. 14
    Lady T says:

    I got hooked on these books recently(am currently awaiting Book 3,Black Powder War,from Booksfree as we speak) and Novik is now on my list of Authors Whose Work I Crave like Crack:) I read a couple of the Pern books when I was younger and the Temeraire series has the best of that and Patrick O’Brien(who I keep trying to read but only managed to go so far),I do agree.

    For anyone who needs a fix before or after reading the last Harry Potter novel,these books should do the trick.

  15. 15
    Bella says:

    “Screw ponies—I wanted a dragon.”

    :jumping up and down frantically:
    Me too, me too!!! And not those foofy Pocket Dragons either, I wanted Horns and Claws and Sharp Spiny Things!  Hell, I still want one. Anybody going to the Hog’s Head soon?

    I’ll have to read this – I never could get into McCaffrey (sp?).

  16. 16
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    Which makes me love the books just that much more, b/c how can you not love things that start with the basic premise that Stephen Maturin is a dragon

    That would have to be the nerdiest dragon ever.  And it would have to tear anything it killed apart *really carefully*, so it could study it before dinner.

  17. 17
    Ron Hogan says:

    Don’t forget that the first novel also has a deathbed scene that makes grown men, long secure in their masculinity, sniffle and do the whole “I’m not crying, I’m having trouble breathing AND there’s dust in my eye!” defense. Even when they’re just thinking about it a year later.

  18. 18
    Lyra says:

    Glad you liked it! The first one made me rush out to buy the second and third when I was halfway done. Just wait until Temeraire hits puberty in Throne of Jade. You’ll positively DIE. The first two were absolutely fantastic in my opinion, but I think the third’s got major problems. Oh well, they can’t all be gems. I have hopes for Book 4.

    I’ve also read somewhere (Novik’s Livejournal, I think?) that there are a total of six planned Temeraire books.

    Chris S. – How would you compare Empire of Ivory to Black Powder War? I found BPW too meandering, and if EoI is the same, I may just stick with the first two.

    snarkhunter – Thanks for that bit of information! Now I know why it reads like fanfiction. :)

  19. 19
    Scotsie says:

    <

    >

  20. 20
    Scotsie says:

    OK – clearly an idiot when it comes to formatting.  What the above post was SUPPOSED to say was:

    *putting down the Salman Rushdie and picking up nice, new, shiny dragon book.*

    *snort*  spam-blocker is “effort24”.  Posting was clearly too much of an effort for me.  Back to sporadic lurking.

  21. 21
    Acajou says:

    “But the best part of the book by far is the unfurling of Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship. The dragon-aviator bond is all-consuming—even mildly creepy at times, when you see the lengths to which some captains will go to ensure their dragon is taken care of—and Novik does an excellent job of portraying how that relationship develops, and making you feel that bond, that camaraderie and affection. “

    I really enjoyed this book. Alas, I am glad someone else noticed the mildly creepy nature of the dragon-aviator relationship. I was sure it was going to go into Janine Cross territory and we would finally understand why aviators were not welcome in “polite society”.

  22. 22
    ginmar says:

    I went out and bought the book just because of this review. I can hardly wait to read it.

  23. 23

    I love these books! I just finished the 2nd, and have the 3rd primed and ready to go.
    The funny thing is, I discovered the first title in my local library, misfiled as a romance novel. Not a breath of romance in it! (Refreshingly)A little bit of comradely sex, but that too was refreshing, as was her portrayal of the female officers in general. More more more!

  24. 24
    --E says:

    Hmm. I am one of the rare people who had a mixed reaction to the book. I liked it, but the flaws almost prevented me from finishing it. My review is here:

    http://barbarienne.livejournal.com/61812.html

    and is spoileriffic.

    I have a real problem with books that have a lot of action in them, but the stage-blocking isn’t very good. It really interferes in my ability to enjoy the story if I have to keep readjusting the picture in my head.

    But I totally agree with Candy that Laurence himself was a breath of fresh air. I liked Temeraire, but he wasn’t as interesting or unique IMO as Laurence.

  25. 25
    michelle says:

    I love the series, and I did cry in the first book at that scene.  I love the new dragon we meet in BPW.

    For those who love dragons-I highly recommend Mercedes Lackey’s series that starts with “Joust”.  Awesome dragons in an Ancient Egyptian like setting.  Also I think the cover of Joust is beautiful.

  26. 26
    Kiwi Carlisle says:

    Those are damned good books, and so unlike McCaffrey. I’ve forced them into the hands of several friends.  I’m so glad you liked them too!

  27. 27
    dl says:

    It’s in my TBR pile…might have to pull it out to read.

  28. 28
    DS says:

    Thanks Chris S for the info about the series.  I’m putting them on my autobuy list.

    And I really wish someone would do unabridged audiobooks of the series.  I think I’ll go complain to Random House Audio. I don’t do abridged.

  29. 29

    Oh my god, yes. I love these books. My mother loves these books. My FATHER loves these books! Naomi Novik = EPIC WIN.

    There are flaws, but as was said, they’re more than made up for. The intricate detail with which the mode of Dragon battle is put together… Brilliance.

    And I fully agree. The brilliance of Laurence is that he’s not the DevilMayCare hero. He is a total product of his era, and as Temeraire grows and his thinking broadens, it starts to chip away at Laurence’s stiffness. Watching him BECOME DevilMayCare is goign to be WAY more fun…

  30. 30
    Charlene says:

    Your review made me buy this book. I’m blaming you, yes, for taking away my ENTIRE WEEKEND and almost causing me to burn my house down because I couldn’t put the damn thing down even to finish dinner.

    This is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read! And I LOVE Laurence – a realistic Regency-era hero!

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