The book is set in an alternate universe during the Napoleonic Wars where dragons are used in aerial warfare in Europe and Asia. The story begins in 1804 when Captain William Laurence seizes a French vessel and discovers a dragon egg on board. As it is close to hatching, the crew must decide who will be the one to harness it, a decision that will impact the individual in every aspect of their life. The riders are not generally part of polite society and are known for their informality, unconcern for sexual propriety and class, and general relaxedness, something Laurence decidedly is not. It is with reluctance that he harnesses the dragon himself, and names it Temeraire. Their bond soon grows as Temeraire shows himself to be sapient and intelligent.