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:
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.