When asked to describe the “Temeraire” series of fantasy novels, most fans default to one succinct summary: the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons.
Naomi Novik’s “His Majesty’s Dragon,” published in 2004, is the first novel in the series, and kicks off an epic fantasy adventure which reads like a mixture of Jane Austen and Jane Yolen, liberally injected with adrenaline and coated in scales.
The novel takes place in the early 19th century, in a world largely the same as our own, except for one addition: Enormous, sapient dragons are an accepted fact of life and are used in the world’s militaries. Human history is shaped by the presence of dragons, from the fate of the Incan empire to the founding of the Chinese Han dynasty.
Naval captain William Laurence captures a dragon egg from a French ship in battle, and when it hatches, he is forced to abandon his captainship to join the ill-regarded English Royal Aerial Corps. Laurence’s resentment at his change in fortune grows into an unbreakable bond between him and his dragon, Temeraire. The two tour the major events of the 19th century with literary panache, focusing on the events of Napoleon Bonaparte’s run as emperor of France.
Novik writes in an imitation of literature from the 19th century, giving the book an authentic, distinguished tone. However, the style is toned down, retaining readers who might not enjoy the style of the time without a little contemporizing. Novik’s meticulous world-building covers everything from dragon politics to dragon cuisine, and is impressively enforced by equally meticulous research. With very few exceptions, the time period and nations represented are accurately portrayed, except in the case of intentionally alternative historical details.
“His Majesty’s Dragon“ deftly tackles a variety of issues: Nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, duty, honor, gender and the horrors of war are all explored through a progression of Laurence’s experiences as an aviator. These themes are examined without sacrificing the development of plot or character, while maintaining a subtle humor and a narrative vivacity. This mitigates some of the dryness which is often a consequence of modern writers attempting to emulate older styles.
The novel’s diverse, emotionally compelling cast will invest the reader as intensely as the gripping action and fast-paced, intricate plot which characterizes Novik’s writing.
Inexpensively-priced on Amazon and available in several formats, “His Majesty’s Dragon“ is an excellent introduction to a critically-acclaimed series. The full epic will occupy a fantasy fan in search of an enjoyably weighty and well-crafted alternative history for nine volumes. Mills’ own library also contains some of Novik’s other works, so check them out for free!