Review: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's DragonTitle: His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire #1)

Author: Naomi Novik

Publisher: Del Rey

Publication Date: March 28th, 2006

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Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature.

Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

For a book about dragon-based warfare, His Majesty’s Dragon was pretty darn cute. In a good way, though.

A distinguished gentleman and a captain in England’s navy, Will Laurence’s career is on the rise until he is unceremoniously transferred into the most infamous bastion of His Majesty’s forces: the Dragon Corps. Segregated from genteel society and no longer bound by their rules, the Corps is a fantastical air force that is simultaneously reviled by the general public and necessary to England’s war effort. The men, women, and dragons of the Corps may be uncouth, but they’re the last bastion against Napoleon’s onslaught.

Novik does an excellent job crafting the image of the Dragon Corps, and it’s easy to understand why Laurence is initially wary of joining. But the newly-hatched dragon Temeraire (named by and instinctively attached to Laurence) quickly grows on him, and becomes a close companion. Although still aboard his vessel, Laurence is charged with caring for and bonding with Temeraire; he can no longer command, and the isolation that this fact brings upon him is palpable. While his former crew still admires and respects him, they almost immediately begin to keep their distance as a result of his new status.

Laurence’s isolation doesn’t last long though, as his bond with Temeraire deepens from pleasant companionship into a profound sense of mutual loyalty and friendship. This relationship is the strongest aspect of Novik’s debut by far: although Laurence technically commands Temeraire, there is never any question that the two are equals. Even when they are sent to a military training camp, where Laurence can socialize with other humans and Temeraire with dragons, the two spend most of their leisure time together. Temeraire’s thirst for knowledge is insatiable, but he has difficulty reading because, well…it’s kind of difficult to turn a page with giant talons. So Laurence often reads aloud to Temeraire, even when the books are about mathematical theory and advanced geology. If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is.

There’s also a very intriguing thread of commentary on gender roles running through the book, which I particularly appreciated. Obviously, women didn’t serve as officers in the Napoleonic wars, but Novik includes them in the Corps; this decision challenges gender-based exclusion in the early 19th century while also making the Corps seem even more bizarre to England’s general population. Women serve as officers, ride dragons in battle, and dine with their male comrades. That’s pretty bad-ass, if I do say so myself.

I was initially hesitant to read His Majesty’s Dragon because it’s a military fantasy, and although I love history, I’m not really interested in military strategy. That said, I actually found myself getting sucked into the lengthy descriptions of both the instruments of war and the battles themselves. If you can’t tell a “frigate” from a “ship of the line,” don’t worry: Novik makes the terminology very accessible without being condescending.

His Majesty’s Dragon is a delightful book, perfect for anyone who likes fantasy, warfare, and inter-species BFFs. It was so good, I didn’t even mind the lack of romance. And that’s pretty high praise coming from me.

 

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