Friday, 16 January 2009

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

An alternative Napoleonic War – with dragons! This is the premise of the author's first novel, published in 2006, which has since been followed by four sequels.

In almost all respects her world closely matches the historical one, with Napoleon threatening invasion and Nelson leading the British fleet. The author has clearly done some research into both the technicalities of sailing warfare and the stiflingly rigid nature of contemporary British society. The one difference is the existence of dragons occurring naturally around the world, albeit in small numbers and rarely seen. They are intelligent and have long been tamed, forming life-long bonds with particular humans as soon as they are out of their eggs. If this sounds familiar, it is; this particular concept is swiped wholesale from Anne McCaffrey's 1968 novel Dragonflight, one of my favourite SFF stories. Other similarities are that the dragons come in various breeds of different sizes and characteristics, but all of them are big enough to carry their riders on their backs. They can also communicate with humans, although in Temeraire they speak rather than using telepathy. Other differences are that Novik's dragons do not teleport, and the largest of them carry not only their handler but a whole crew of people including rifle squads for aerial combat: for the dragons are a vital weapon to both sides in the war.

The story's hero is Will Lawrence, a successful British frigate captain of aristocratic birth but no fortune, being a third son. He hopes to make his career in the Navy, but his plans are interrupted when he captures a French ship carrying a rare and precious cargo: a dragon's egg. This hatches before the ship can reach land and the male dragon attaches itself to Lawrence, to his great consternation as dragon handlers live apart from society with their dragons and are considered to be of low status. The rest of the story is primarily concerned with Lawrence's developing relationship with his dragon, called Temeraire, as they train to join the aerial forces defending Britain.

While the individual elements of the tale are hardly original, they haven't been put together in quite this way before and the result is a refreshing and entertaining read. It is written as an exciting and fairly light adventure story and is entirely suitable for younger readers as well as engaging enough to keep adults amused. The only aspect which jarred with me was the rather cloying sentimentality of the relationship which develops between Lawrence and Temeraire, which led me to keep thinking of the dragon as female. Still well worth the read, but I'm in no great hurry to get the next one.


Boyd said...

My friend pitched the series to me as "a non-sexual love story about a man and his dragon, set during an AU Napoleonic War", so the developing romance didn't throw me at all. I guess it depends on what you're expecting. :) I was much more thrown by the blatant defiance of physics required to turn dragons into sort of living airships of war; at least the Pern series was set on a different planet, and, even then, the dragons only had to lift a single rider.

Anthony G Williams said...

I'm afraid that everything to do with huge, people-carrying dragons requires a major suspension of disbelief unless on a world with a VERY thick atmosphere!