on March 28, 2006 (paperback)
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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.
I finished listening to His Majesty’s Dragon a week or two ago, and my first reaction was Why on earth did I wait so long?! I’m now partway into book two, Throne of Jade, and officially in love with this series.
Despite the war-time setting, His Majesty’s Dragon is more a character-driven novel than an action or plot-heavy book. The pace is slower and the prose more formal than in most recent fantasy novels, but they suit the nineteenth-century feel of the book perfectly. Novik is fond of the novels of Patrick O’Brien (Master and Commander) and Jane Austen, and it shows in her writing style as well as in the time and place in which her books are set: Britain (and other locales) during the Napoleonic Wars.
Captain Will Laurence (known to all as Laurence) is both the POV character and one of the two main characters – the other being the dragon Temeraire himself. When His Majesty’s Dragon begins, Laurence is a captain in His Majesty’s Navy, but circumstances (in the person of Temeraire) force him into the less respected Aerial Corps. Laurence’s speech, formal manners , sense of propriety, and dedication to honor and duty are those of an early nineteenth-century officer and gentleman, but his deep affection for Temeraire and an unexpected flexibility of thought and attitude (not immediately apparent, I grant you!) serve to humanize him and make him easier for this twenty-first-century reader to relate to. Temeraire is a delight, one of the best dragon characters I’ve ever come across. I love his curiousity, his loyalty to Laurence, his matter-of-fact but dragon-centric view of the world, and his odd combination of innocence and wisdom. He is highly intelligent; he loves to have Lawrence read to him: anything from stories about dragons to abstruse mathematical treatises (which he understands far better than Laurence himself!) And he has an endearing need for comfort and reassurance.
In fact, I really love what Novik has done with the dragons in this series. They certainly owe something to Anne McCaffrey’s intelligent dragons, particularly in their partnering with human beings, but Novik has made these dragons distinctly her own, even developing and describing a number of different breeds. She has also created a believable and fascinating society-within-a-society in the Aerial Corps, the men (and a few women) who “handle” and serve with, beside, and literally on the dragons in combat. Since Laurence is a newcomer to the Corps, we learn about it through his experience, which certainly minimizes any awkward info dumps. There are plenty of interesting characters among the dragons, officers, and cadets of the Corps (including one little dragon whose sad situation brought me to tears.)
I can’t wait to read more about Laurence and Temeraire! Luckily for me (and you, if you like the series), there are already seven books in print, and possibly a few more on the way.
As I mentioned above, I actually listened to the audiobook of His Majesty’s Dragon—or rather, my daughter “Robin” and I listened to it, as we drove back and forth from her college classes. The audiobooks are read by the very talented Simon Vance, and I can’t imagine anyone doing it better: his voices and narration are really perfect for the books’ style and subject. This is one case in which I can wholeheartedly recommend either the print books or the audiobooks as equally good. (Do make sure you get the unabridged version! I borrowed this book on CD from the library, but I believe they are available through Audible.com.)