behind 'His Majesty's Dragon' by Naomi Novik is not rocket science. She
posits an alternate history where dragons, long domesticated by humans,
become an integral part of the combat forces in the Napoleonic Wars.
But Novik hatches from this premise an outstanding novel and fantasy
series. Does the world need another series of novels that involve dragons
and humans in combat? It seems unlikely. But Novik does what writers
of fantastic fiction have done since time immemorial both within her
novel and within the context of literature in general; she makes a fantastic
premise utterly, compellingly believable. Once you read 'His Majesty's
Dragon', you'll not only in believe that dragons could be a part of the
Napoleonic Wars, you'll believe in the far more unlikely premise that
we need more novels about dragons and humans fighting a common foe for
the good of everyone involved, especially readers.
Novik sets things up quickly and effectively. Will Laurence, the upward
bound Captain of the HMS Reliant, captures a French frigate after a pitched
battle. Aboard her, he finds an unhatched dragon egg. As a seaman, he
knows of dragons and their value in the battle against Napoleon. But
before he can get the egg back to the mainland, it hatches and bonds
with him. In the typical fantasy novel, he's be integrated into an elite
corps and find himself in a princely position. But in Novik's world,
the Aerial Corps are strictly second-class outcasts. His promising career
in the military, already a disappointment to his hoity-toity family is
now in the gutter. Moreover, he's a bit on the mature side to join in
the Aerial Corps and be given his own dragon. This makes him an unwelcome
addition to Aerial Corps as well as scuttling his career in the Royal
Navy. He finds himself both an outcast and an outsider, forced to learn
a new craft. And of course, there are battles in store for the Aerial
Corps, the import of which nobody can really wrap their brains around.
This is the first book in a series and it manages to set up the world
and the series quite nicely. Novik keeps the plot moving briskly both
by giving us entrée to her sort-of alternate history and by providing
action within that history. Balancing between these tow poles is tricky,
but Novik handles it with ease and even élan. The reader never
feels that they’re being given a tour and the action always seems
to evolve naturally from the situations at hand. 'His Majesty's Dragon'
is something of a page-turner, culminating in a series of battles that
are just as fascinating as the evolution of her characters. And that
emotional evolution is a key part of the plot and the appeal of the novel.
Novik not only moves the in-this-world action along, she also moves the
emotional journey of her characters in concert with the action. Satisfying
battle scenes complement satisfying character changes. The combination
of motion and emotion makes 'His Majesty's Dragon' a remarkably satisfying
Novik's characters are an interesting lot. Will Laurence is not a likable
guy when we meet him and he doesn't get likable for longer than one would
expect. Novik develops Laurence's characters in two arenas. In the world
of society and family, Novik take us into a realm of familial tension
reminiscent of Jane Austen. She writes of pretty parties and pointed
remarks with the same authority she brings to battle scenes. Of course
in a book about dragons, it's important that the dragons be effective
characters as well as the humans. Novik's Temeraire and his contemporaries
are a delight, witty but not simply the font of a series of one-liners.
She even integrates them into Will's social life effectively by making
Temeraire someone Will can go to when he's fobbed off by his family.
Within the world of the Aerial Corps, characters are equally effective.
There society's strictures are of necessity loosened by virtue of the
fact that some species of dragons will bond only with women, giving those
women an equality that they might otherwise never achieve. As Will learns
the ropes, he comes more at ease with himself and his destiny. Simple
stuff really, but handled remarkably well.
Novik's novel is not exactly an alternate history in the usual sense
of that genre, and reads more like a straightforward historical novel
with a large soupcon of the strange. Her naval and aerial battles are
wonderfully written, fun, full-blown extravaganzas that don’t go
on too long or overwhelm with detail. She puts you in the pilot's seat
and you get the ride of your life. She provides the precisely perfect
level of detail, enough to immerse the reader in her world-creating history
but never so much as to seem like lecture. 'His Majesty's Dragon' is
a superb work of both historical and fantastic world-building.
All of this happens by virtue of Novik's prose, which effectively skirts
the line between slick modern storytelling and a mildly arch historical
style. She lets the reader have the illusion of period prose without
the actuality, and the compromise is effective. Some readers may find
themselves put off at first when they encounter that dragon's egg in
the midst of the sea battle. But Novik keeps her wits about her and believes
her own premise so that they reader comes to do so as well. She can quiet
things down in her country teatime parties and heat them up with fire-spitting
dragons. There's enough luxury here that the book is enjoyable to read
without being overly baroque.
'His Majesty's Dragon' proves itself to be a rather remarkable book,
far more involving and accessible than one might think given the standard-issue
dragons-and-guys premise. Novik's ability to orchestrate emotions and
action in perfect counterpoint will sweep away just about any reader
willing to give her some forty pages or so. And though this is the first
book in series, with two sequels already available, readers won't feel
that it is chapter one so much as it is the first adventure. There's
clearly more to come and readers will want to experience those adventures,
but we're not left hanging in the middle of the action. 'His Majesty's
Dragon' is indeed not rocket science at all. It is fine art, executed
with military precision, emotional intelligence, and a finely honed imagination.
It scales heights not dreamed of in any science.