Imagine you are a happy captain at sea during the Napoleonic war between England and France (1803-1815). You are a gentleman who is raised to respect discipline and formality is what you prefer. You are doing well as a captain. You actually just captured a French ship and you are busy inspected the prize. Now imagine the prize is a mysterious dragon’s egg that is about to be hatched. This egg will change your life forever because you are living in an alternative world from ours where dragons are used for combat in the air.
I’ve always wanted to either be a dragon or own one, so the premise of this book was an instant hit for me. This book is part one of a nine book series written by Naomi Novik, the same lady who wrote ‘Uprooted’ which is reviewed here: Uprooted.
The reason that the hatching egg will change Laurence’s life is because a dragon has to be harnessed the moment it comes out of the egg in order to control it and use it in combat. Normally that should be done by a trained aviator who has been trained from a very young age to handle dragons. However, they are in the middle of the sea with no land in sight, so Laurence and his crew must improvise. Laurence and his crew pull straws and the unlucky one is allocated to try and harness the dragon. However, when the dragon hatches he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the chosen one. Instead, he chooses Laurence as his master and he grudgingly accepts because he knows it is his duty to serve his country and to take care of the dragon. Dragons are a vital part of Englands’ defences during the war and they need to train as many as possible to compete with the dragon forces of the French. Dragons are difficult to train because they are smart creatures whose intelligence often rivals that of humans. An additional difficulty in the training of dragons is that aviators who do the training have to dedicate their life to it. Aviators life far away in secluded areas and have little contact with other people. People fear the dragons too much and they need space to fly and train. Also, usually aviators forge a strong bond with their dragons and spend most of their time either training with them or chilling with their dragons anyway. Laurence knows that accepting the dragon as his responsibility will mean saying farewell to his life as captain and to ‘civilized’ society as a whole. He names his dragon Temeraire and together they go off to Scotland for their training as aerial combatants.
The biggest part of this book focusses on the training of Laurence and Temeraire and how the two form a deep attachment to each other. Also, we meet the other aviators and we get to know the variety of dragon species. There are very big ones, there is the one with acid breath and there are smaller ones build for speed or as a messenger. Also, there is a difference between species from Britain, France and China. For example, Temeraire’s species is a mystery for a large part of the book until it turns out he is Chinese. This difference is explained because every empire breeds its own species and they all started out with different dragons. They mix dragons to get certain capabilities such as speed or size. A big part of the book is dedicated to finding out which species Temeraire is exactly and to see his how he develops while he grows. One of the biggest questions is whether Temeraire has any special capabilities such as acid breath, but I won’t tell you the answer to that question.
Laurence background as a gentleman and navy captain means he is used to formality. This gives him some troubles because the aviator society is informal. Throughout the first book, he is trying to hold on to his formal manners while he is also adjusting to the more informal ways of the aviators. In the beginning, he even looks down on the aviators’ manners, although he would never admit to that. He is a bit of a twat and an egghead and in that way as he refuses to make friends because everyone appears too gruff. It is funny to witness his struggle to get to terms with people who do not greet him with the proper title or servants who openly jawn when he stays up too late. Luckily for Laurence, he quickly grows a deep attachment and friendship with Temeraire and soon he spends most of his free time with him so he is not alone anymore. This does give him an even better escape to avoid the humans he cannot bond with though. It is interesting to read about a character who is so obviously struggling to adjust. It is something different from the hero who struts into a new place, makes friends and saves the world. The thing that eventually aids Laurence to become one of the aviators and to earn their respect is his combat skills. That makes sense because he was a well-trained captain before after all so he had sufficient experience.
Temeraire is a remarkable character. He is fluent in both English and French because dragons learn in the egg and he has been on a ship from both countries for weeks. Why he is fluent in fancy French and English, instead of the versions most likely spoken on a ship is a question that still remains. Temeraire is supposedly tough to handle because he only allowed Laurence to harness him. However, as soon as Temeraire takes a liking to Laurence he accepts his harness and listens to him, even when he doesn’t agree with Laurence’s commands. There are no problems such as aggression, threats of escape or violence. The tough dragon is obedient to a fault. And it is like this with all dragons. It seems that as soon as a handler has put the harness on a dragon it becomes obedient. This harnessing trick is a universal agreement between dragons and humans, but it is never explained why it works like that and that irked me. Why would the dragons be so easy to control? It is not as if humans have any real means of control over them. It would all have been much more logical and interesting when the training of dragons went with some effort towards controlling the dragons instead of it all going in amiable companionship. That would have shown the love for battle instead of telling us the dragons love fighting. The friendly appearance Novik tried to give the dragons does not add up with their love for battle and their habits of hunting their own food. Also, dragons have friendships among each other but there is no mentioning of dragons flying off to start their own society. Maybe I am too independent thinking, but that felt strange to me.
All these contradictions made the dragons very unrealistic to me. Don’t get me wrong, they are amazing creatures and I loved reading about them and riding with them in this story. However, the way to control them sounded too easy for me. On the one hand, you have humans who use the dragons in their dangerous battles where they also have to kill many of their own. Also, they train long hours with the dragons and the humans’ control when and what they eat. On the other hand, dragons are massive (even the small ones can carry more than five people), supposedly intelligent and capable of independent thought and also lovers of fighting and battle. I guess this is one of those cases where technically speaking the suppressed are way more powerful than the oppressors, but still the oppressed do not revolt and fly off to live their own lives in peace. I can accept that the dragons stay because they befriend their handlers and they get taken care of, but still, it is strange there is not even a bit of revolt or trouble when training a dragon. They act like friendly puppies hopping along adoring their handlers, but puppies who are also vicious fighters. Even when a dragon is neglected it doesn’t revolt. I hope Naomi Novik will do something in the later books to make the dragon characters more realistic.
The book starts very good by showing us the alternative world and how it works. However, it slacks off in the middle and even became a bit boring to me. There are two big actions scenes, but they both come at the end of the book. I am not sure whether lack of actions made the book fall flat though. Maybe the bigger issue is that the book turns repetitive. It is mentioned a little bit too often how magnificent, intelligent and awesome Temeraire is. He only receives praise and nothing big goes wrong in the training. And whoever learned something new without making some big mistakes on the way? This is even more mystifying because at the beginning of the book everybody is worried they will never get Laurence and Temeraire’s training on combat level quickly enough. Additionally, too often Novik tries to convince the reader how kind, compliant and hardworking the dragons are. But if you must tell your readers so many times the characteristics of your characters maybe you did not write them that well.
Despite my qualms, I still want to read the other books in the series and when you get down to it that is one of the most important qualities of a book. It might not be perfect and there are many things I hope Novik improves on in the other books because the potential is there. The world is interesting and this was one of her first books ever, so we can not expect wonders. She got the most important thing down a writing style that takes you away to soar through the skies on the back of Temeraire together with Laurence. Even if reading the other books would only allow me to go on many more trips with Temeraire or the other dragons they will still be worth the read! But I am sure the next books in the story will have more to offer when the bigger story of the Napoleonic war unfolds.
Alternative world jealousy award for giving us another world I’d rather live in than my own
Naomi Novik, his majesty’s dragon (London, 2006)
Bella G. Bear