His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
It's the turn of the nineteenth century, and Napoleon is terrorizing Europe, while the Royal Navy has been charged with protecting the Sceptered Isle. Among the wooden ships that keep that watch is the frigate Reliant, commanded by Will Laurence, a man of gentle birth, although not of the actual peerage. Following the Nelsonian precept of bringing one's ship close to the enemy, he captures and boards a French frigate, the Amite. Its crew had fought with unusual ferocity, which led Laurence to suspect that the ship bore a cargo of unusual value.
It proves to be an egg of extraordinary size, and the ship's surgeon quickly identifies it as that of a dragon. For this is not quite our world, for all that it seems superficially alike. Humanity shares the Earth with another intelligent species, one of reptilian or dinosaurian origins, but with six limbs rather than four.
Critics have complained that Novik's dragons are simply Anne McCaffrey's Pernese dragons transported to the Napoleonic Wars. To be true, there are similarities: their eggs are soft and leathery upon laying but subsequently harden to develop a shell more like that of a bird as they approach the time for hatching, and when that event occurs, they bond with a human rider. But even in those similarities there are differences, for it would be quite unthinkable for a Pernese dragon to fail to Impress, but it appears to be rather common for the dragons of this alternate Earth to go feral if they are not quickly harnessed by a human. Even the nature of the bond is different, for these dragons speak with words that all can hear rather than mind-to-mind, and they must be named by their human partner rather than knowing their names from the beginnings of their lives.
My own reservations lie in a different area, given that I am by training a historian: I have difficulty believing that a world with dragons would otherwise develop culturally unchanged. Dragons violate the tetrapodal body plan of all modern land vertebrates, which would suggest that either they are the result of some strange mutation that doubled the pectoral girdle of a group of Archosauria or that they represent a second group of vertebrates, unrelated to the stock that became all modern Tetrapoda, separately evolving limbs and terrestrial locomotion. Either possibility would place the evolutionary breakpoint well into the Paleozoic, long before the appearance of modern mammals -- which would render unlikely in the extreme the evolution of recognizable anatomically modern Homo sapiens, let alone the development of a recognizable England and France, complete with Nelson, Napoleon and even poor old mad King George III. The only way I was even able to read it was to simply ignore the issue altogether and let my own love for a good sea story take over.
And to be true, Novik does have a good feel for the culture and the language of the time, even the turns of slang which were common at the turn of the nineteenth century: "wouldn't it be famous...?" where someone of our own time would say "wouldn't it be cool...?" and someone of the turn of the twentieth century might have said "wouldn't it be swell...?" Laurence is an honorable man, in accordance with the mores of the English gentry of the period, and when it becomes obvious that they cannot deliver the egg to shore before it hatches and they must try to tame it themselves, he insists that all his officers must draw lots to determine who will make the attempt. Much like in the air forces of our own world, aviators are always officers, not enlisted personnel, which in the social terms of the England of that day means they must be of gentle birth.
When he draws the lot of the youngest midshipman, a lad he knows to have no head for heights, Laurence despairs that he may have thus ruined two lives. But the hatchling proves wiser than Laurence's noble efforts to be fair, and declines to even notice the frightened young midshipman. Instead the young dragon turns to the astonished captain and addresses him, thus establishing whom he has accepted as his rider.
Although appalled by what it will mean for his career, Laurence knows his duty to King and Country, and immediately hands over command of the Reliant to his first lieutenant so he can concentrate on the care of his new charge, whom he has named Temeraire after the famous ship of the line. However, he is quite untrained in how to go about it, and thus is taken quite by surprise when Temeraire launches himself into the air to rescue a sailor who has been washed overboard. But once Laurence overcomes his astonishment at the dragon's show of initiative, they form a working partnership and soon learn to function as a team in the air.
When they arrive ashore, it is to the adamant disapproval of the port admiral, who only grudgingly accepts Laurence's explanation for the problematic situation. However, the admiral is adamant that such a talented naval captain as Laurence must not be wasted on a career in the Air Corps, and orders that Temeraire must be rebonded to a trained aviator (another major departure from the Pernese pattern -- it would be unthinkable for a Pernese dragon, once Impressed, to be re-Impressed to another rider).
However, that proves easier said than done, for all Temeraire's would-be new rider does to convince him that Laurence was acting only out of duty and wanted to be back at sea. At length Laurence is recalled to the dragon he accidentally embonded, and he begins his new career and new life. Although the airbases are not quite like the Weyrs of Pern, for after all this is England, t hey still must perforce live in relative isolation where there is sufficient pasturage for the large numbers of livestock these carnivorous reptiles must eat, as of course flight is a very metabolically demanding activity. That means taking Laurence away from the cities and the high society that he enjoys.
But there are other compensations, as he soon discovers, including women aviators. Women's lighter frames are more suited to some of the smaller dragons, who have been bred for speed rather than strength, and after at least some dragons showed an adamant preference for a female partner, English society has grudgingly allowed that this particular military specialty be open to women as well as men. They may be regarded as somewhat suspect, and certainly no longer quite proper ladies, but their contribution to the war effort is acknowledged, and Laurence finds himself drawn to a more than merely professional admiration of one.
However, all is not well, for Temeraire's Chinese origins are now threatening to start an international incident. And of course this comes just as England most desperately needs his contribution to the war effort.
Review posted January 15, 2009
Buy His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire, Book 1) on Amazon.com.