Book and Movie Reviews

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire series)

by Naomi Novik

March 4, 2019.Beth.2 Likes.0 Comments
This book is not for the faint of heart. It is long, it is slow and you’ll learn more than the casual reader ever wanted to know about the Napoleonic wars. But it is so worth it.

This review contains spoilers

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.

Laurence leaves the Navy and flies with Temeraire to the training covert in Loch Laggan. On the way they discover that Temeraire is a rare Chinese Imperial Dragon that is hardly ever seen outside of China and never in Britain. The Aerial Corps tries to replace Laurence with another rider who had been training for a dragon, however to Laurence’s surprise and delight Temeraire refuses the rider and their bond grows. Laurence’s family is not happy and his father disowns him when he hears of his new profession, forcing his mother to communicate with him in secret.

The rest of the book deals with Laurence and Temeraire training and learning to be a part of a formation, the other Captains and dragons the two meet and the various battles they are involved in. The book ends with the discovery that Temeraire is actually a Celestial dragon that had been gifted by the Chinese to Napoleon himself before Laurence intercepted it. This brings new problems such as a potential alliance between France and China and Napoleon’s anger at his personal dragon being stolen.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is long, it is slow and you’ll learn more than the casual reader ever wanted to know about the Napoleonic wars. But it is so worth it. Naomi Novik is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. Her worlds are rich and intense, her characters complex and intricate and her stories interesting and different. Returning to the book feels like returning to old friends in a familiar landscape, that is if you put the book down to begin with.

In Temeraire, the highlight for me was the characters. Lawrence, the ship captain turned dragon rider and Temeraire, the Oriental dragon, are the main characters of this book. Lawrence is a gentleman, the son of Lord Allendale. He is a Captain in the Royal Navy before becoming a Captain in the Aerial corps and he struggles with the change as he is fastidious and polite with high expectations for his crew. Temeraire is highly intelligent and enjoys baths and reading much to the surprise and shock of the other dragons and their Captains. Their characters are well crafted and distinct, their backstory well defined and their differences to the other characters is very clear. In fact, each character in the book is well defined with clear personalities and motives.

The way the book is written is also a highlight as Novik wove the historical and fantasy elements together in the story seamlessly. The Aerial Corps is the main difference between the historical facts and fantasy as obviously dragons were not a part of the Napoleonic wars. But in this book it seems completely reasonable that they could’ve been. The scenes with the dragons in battle are so detailed that it feels like it could have been real. They fill in gaps in the battles so well that it seems strange that they weren’t there in the real war.

I did have some problems with the book. There were hardly any female characters, and those that were there had limited page time. Because the events are viewed through Lawrence’s perspective, we see the women through an 1800’s lens. So for a lot of the book Captain Catherine Harcourt, the one consistent female character, is seen through a fluster of embarrassment and surprise that a woman would be serving. The reader is never able to get to know her the way we can the male characters because Lawrence doesn’t deem a friendship with her appropriate as she is so young. She is an interesting character though and I would have enjoyed her playing a larger role. Captain Jane Roland is the other woman in the story. She is a combat veteran, a well-respected authority figure and unashamedly had a child out of wedlock. While Lawrence likes and respects her, his comfort around her comes from her being “one of the boys” where he can mostly ignore protocol. Emily, her daughter, is one of Lawrence’s crew. When he mistakes her for a boy he treats her like the others, but his attitude changes once he finds out she’s a girl. He becomes protective and fatherly even though she has given him no reason to be, and is constantly amazed that anyone would subject their daughters to the hard life of the corps. This is even after he discovers certain dragons will only take female riders, and sees that the women are just as skilled as the men.

The slowness of the story was also a little frustrating. While it built the world and characters, sometimes this was to the detriment of the pacing. The history also overtook the plot a little at times, and I would have preferred the dragon aspect to be more prominent then the war. By making dragon’s mundane, the reader misses out on the magic that they bring to a story and possible narrative opportunities.

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Simon Vance and I would definitely recommend it. Even though it was 9 hours and 57 minutes, making a long book longer, it was incredibly enjoyable. Vance has a wonderful reading voice and was able to read the tricky words and names that an unfamiliar mind would stumble on. His use of different voices also helped in bringing the characters to life and gave them added personality.

I really enjoyed this book. It was long and sometimes slow to read, but the depth to the story and characters make it worthwhile. The history and fantasy element meld seamlessly, and while the story lacks female characters, it is a fresh and innovative take on a historical novel. I would recommend this book, especially the audio version read by Simon Vance. 

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