Visions of Paradise

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Her Majesty's Dragon

Naomi Novik made quite a splash in the f&sf genre a year ago with the publication of three novels in three consecutive months which combined C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower with Anne McCaffrey’s Pern. Their premise was that most nations’ military during the Napoleanic Wars featured an Air Force consisting of dragons. A few sub-species of dragons had their own natural weapons of breathing fire or spitting acid, but most of them were the equivalent of carriers and bombers, hovering above ships and land forces fighting against each other or dropping bombs on the enemy below.

The first novel is Her Majesty’s Dragon, although it had the title Temeraire in England, a title which now serves as the composite title of the Science Fiction Book Club edition which gathers all three novels under one cover. As the novel begins, a British navy ship is engaging in battle with a French ship, but the battle's outcome is foreordained by the terrible condition of the French ship and its occupants, so that the British defeat them easily. After taking the ship, the British forces find a box hidden in the ship's bowels which contains the ship’s treasure: a huge dragon egg. This is a rare find since dragons are not numerous and the French forces have many more fighting dragons than the British and their allies have. The egg is taken aboard the British ship where the ship’s surgeon realizes it is close to hatching. This is important since newly-hatched dragons typically bond irrevocably with the first person they see. So a ship’s officer is chosen by lot to wait for the egg to hatch, after which he will become the dragon’s mate and forcibly leave naval service to become an aviator.

But the dragon rejects the anxious youth and instead stalks across the deck, stopping in front of Laurence, the ship’s captain. They bond, and Laurence has no choice but to turn over the captaincy of the ship to his second-in-command, and begin the process of becoming an aviator.

Her Majesty’s Dragon is pleasant reading overall. While it is ostensibly a military novel, fighting actually occupies a small portion of the novel, so that the majority of it can best be described as “a man and his dragon”. While Laurence is the novel’s main character, the story is dominated by Temeraire, a highly-intelligent, English-speaking dragon. In fact, Temeraire is somewhat too perfect to be totally believable. Like all dragons, he is born already totally aware and fully-speaking (something to do with absorbing language while in the egg). Not only is he as intelligent as Laurence, but he is a voracious learner, who unfortunately is unable to read books because he cannot turn pages with his huge claws, so Laurence spends many long evenings reading to him. But what they often read are books too complex for Laurence himself to comprehend, such as a book on Laplace Transforms, so that while Laurence does the actual reading, often Temeraire serves the role of teacher.

While this aspect of dragon intelligence seemingly from the moment of its birth is a bit unbelievable, I was able to accept it since it simplified the story not needing to ground the novel’s first half in raising a dragon baby. But it is not the book's only simplification, but rather a template for the entire novel. For example, Laurence was a devoted navy man, having risen to captain while fairly young, and throwing all that away to become the nursemaid for a dragon should be a somewhat traumatic change (which even he realizes at the outset of his switch to aviator). But we see no trauma at all. Almost from their first day together, Laurence and Temeraire are like an old married couple (even to the extent that Laurence nearly always addresses the dragon as “dear”). There is no emotional tugging in Laurence, nor is their any emotional growth or development in his feelings toward Temeraire. Novik needed the “man and his dragon” aspect for her novel, so it happened immediately.

Nor is there any equivocation in Laurence’s feelings towards Temeraire. His dragon is his all, so much so that he immediately attacks anybody, either verbally or physically, who dares to say anything less than wonderful about Temeraire. Alas, this is not characterization, it is simplification.

I have a few other complaints: for a novel set during the Napoleanic Wars, there is very little sense of either place or time in the novel. Novik so devotes herself to watching Laurence and Temeraire that she ignores the wonders of the early 19th century world surrounding them. Even the plotting is paper-thin: Napoleon wants to invade Europe, so the dragons are training to defend the isles against him; and the story’s one attempt at a true villain is telegraphed almost from his first appearance.

And yet, after all these complaints, in one late scene in which a dragon actually dies, I was genuinely touched, moreso than I am in most novels entirely about humans. I am still not sure if that was because of the author’s successful manipulation of my emotions, or the pet lover in me being affected by those damned dragons!

Overall Her Majesty’s Dragon was enjoyable in spite of its weaknesses, ideal for late nights after a long day or work. Since this was Novik’s first novel, there is hope she will grow as a writer so that subsequent novels in the series will show increased emotional depth and plot development. For now, I enjoyed the ride upon a dragon’s back and should be better prepared for the next novel with lesser expectations than I had for this one due to all its critical hype.


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