Title: Temeraire (2006)
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Read: 28th November – 9th December 2018
Genre: fantasy; alternate history
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies . . . not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. 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.” (Synopsis from the author’s website)
Temeraire, for me, was a breath of fresh air for one very important reason: its time period. So many fantasy books, when based in history, choose to be set in either antiquity, a generic “medieval” period, or the Victorian age. It’s so rare to see something that is based outside of this setting, so with its Georgian setting, Temeraire was already well on its way to becoming a favourite even before I’d properly gotten into the story itself. And the story starts strongly too, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars aboard a ship of the British Royal Navy as the crew captures a French ship and its cargo, including one bizarre egg.
“Laurence felt his face going red; she was sitting there in breeches that showed every inch of her leg, with a shirt held closed only by a neckcloth; he shifted his gaze to the unalarming top of her head and managed to say, ‘Your servant, Miss Harcourt.’ “
The real delight in this story lies in the world that Novik has created, not just the world in which dragons are firmly part of a Royal Aerial Corps fighting against Napoleon’s forces (including dragons, obviously), but in the micro detail of this world. Contrasted strongly against other branches of the armed forces due to the fact Laurence used to be a Captain of a ship, the world of the dragon corps contains training grounds and discipline and ranks and etiquette, all of which is baffling to Laurence who is so used to the world of the Navy. As he struggles to find his feet, so too must the reader, but seeing the story through his eyes allows us to be eased into his (new) world along with him. As someone who loves stories set during the Georgian period precisely for the social etiquette and events, it was so much fun for me to see Laurence unsettled by the Aerial Corps’ comparative lack of decorum – everyone is so much more familiar than he expects, and this results in some rather amusing situations including steam rooms and women alike (not connected).
“ ‘Oh dear,’ Laurence said; he felt rather awkward explaining that the main attraction was the abundance of harbour prostitutes and cheap liquor. ‘Well, a city has a great many people in it, and thus various entertainments provided in close proximity,’ he tried.
‘Do you mean such as more books?’ Temeraire said.”
Speaking of women, the female characters in this story are strong and badass and I sincerely hope to hear more of them as the series continues – Roland, in particular, was an unexpected delight and just as Laurence found himself flabbergasted by her familiar manner, I too found myself rooting for her to appear more and more in the story so I could get to see more of her and her interactions with him. Of course, mention must be made too of the dragons in this story: Temeraire, the eponymous dragon, is hilarious and intelligent and such a lovely character to read about with his innocent questioning of the rules and regulations of the world around him, prompting those who come into contact with him to start to question them too. Indeed, we follow Temeraire right from the moment of his hatching from his egg and as we follow his journey with Laurence he matures, grows (to an alarmingly length), and starts to learn of the world he has been born into. Amusingly enough, Laurence has never been much of a reader, until Temeraire shows a keen interest in books and then the Captain spends many a nighttime reading to his dragon, much to the amusement of his fellow dragon riders. Temeraire, it seems, is both a precocious and a voracious learner and that immediately adds a humanistic element to the story that makes it extremely relatable despite the fact that what we are relating to might well be a dragon in this case!
“It seems to me that if you wish to apply laws to us, it were only reasonable to consult us on them, and from what you have read to me about Parliament, I do not think any dragons are invited to go there.”
Interesting too is the fact that the actual treatment of dragons is addressed through seeing the neglect of one of the beasts by their handler. Such treatment isn’t expected by the other riders, but the bond between rider and dragon is such that they don’t feel able to interfere if that’s how the rider wishes to speak to, and treat, his own dragon. Considering dragons are so prized in wartime, this behaviour could well be frowned upon, but it’s in the seeing of the personal level of moral obligation the other riders feel which raised an interesting, unexpected dynamic in the novel about how we treat animals, particularly service animals in war. I didn’t expect those kind of issues to be tackled in a fantasy story, especially not one involving dragons, but here we are – and I think the novel is so much more the rich for it.
“However, I must disagree with you very strongly that providing ordinary and reasonable care in any way constitutes coddling, and I have always found that deprivation and hardship, when necessary, can be better endured by men who have not been subjected to them previously for no cause.”
In conclusion, Temeraire proved to be an absolute delight of a book. Despite its dramatic opening scene, I’d say that the novel is much slower paced than your average fantasy, but that is simply because Novik is taking her time to expertly weave a world of alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars, full of social and political commentary, which I know she will expand upon in the rest of the series. I cannot wait to read on and to find out where the journey of Laurence and Temeraire takes them next.
“Dragon intelligence was a mystery to men who made a study of the subject; he had no idea how much the dragon would hear or understand, but thought it better to avoid the risk of giving offence.”