Monday, April 23, 2007

His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novik

Retitled for American audiences as His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire in the UK), Naomi Novik's debut novel is an alternate history sort of fantasy where nations harness the power of dragons in their political struggles. Set during the Napoleonic Wars Naomi Novik re-imagines the events of the military conflict if England and France were able to bring dragons to the battlefield. Captain Will Laurence is a naval officer in charge of the H.M.S. Reliant and in a sea battle he captures a French ship and most surprisingly, a dragon egg. When the egg hatches Will Laurence harnesses the dragon, Temeraire, himself at risk of his naval career. This begins the real story of His Majesty's Dragon as Laurence and Temeraire must soon adapt to service in the air corps and how different Temeraire is from the other dragons.

Alan Dean Foster, in one of the inside blurbs on the book, compares His Majesty's Dragon to the work of both Patrick O'Brien and Anne McCaffrey and the comparison is apt. Captain Will Laurence could have stepped off of any of Jack Aubrey's ships and the dragon aspect does have a certain air of Pern. While there is no "impression" as fans of McCaffrey would be familiar, Laurence does seem to "impress" Temeraire and the bond is quite similar between the two. Now, rather than mental communication the dragons here actually speak and speak English (or whatever language they are raised with when they are still in the egg). Moving past the mechanism where a dragon shaped dragon speaks the King's English better than some Englishmen through a snout and perfectly forms words and sentences, the dragon / human interaction is quite possibly the best part of the book. Temeraire is remarkable, even for a dragon, and learning more about Temeraire and what he is and how he will fit in to the English Air Corps and how Will Laurence will adapt to the striking transformation of the Navy to the Air Corps is the best part of His Majesty's Dragon. Sure, Novik gets the feeling of the Patrick O'Brien world of a naval man and does so without weighing the reader down with an overabundance of detail, but she shines in the character interaction. Will Laurence is a stiff navy man and the informality of the Air Corps is a shock to his system, though he adapts well to Temeraire.

No matter what title one calls His Majesty's Dragon / Temeraire by, the end result is a fast paced military novel with dragons, class, a stiff upper lip, humor, a dragon who loves to read if only he could turn the pages, military training and action, and great character interaction. The hype for His Majesty's Dragon was all set to lead to a disappointment, but happily, the novel meets the hype head on and, indeed, it merits the hype. This is a fine debut by an author to watch.

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