His Majesty's Dragon
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
Del Rey / Ballantine / Random House
US Mass Market Paperback Original
356 Pages; $7.50
Publication Date: 03-28-06
Date Reviewed: 11-28-06
The premise behind 'His Majesty's Dragon' by Naomi Novik is not rocket science. She posits an alternate history where dragons, long domesticated by humans, become an integral part of the combat forces in the Napoleonic Wars. But Novik hatches from this premise an outstanding novel and fantasy series. Does the world need another series of novels that involve dragons and humans in combat? It seems unlikely. But Novik does what writers of fantastic fiction have done since time immemorial both within her novel and within the context of literature in general; she makes a fantastic premise utterly, compellingly believable. Once you read 'His Majesty's Dragon', you'll not only in believe that dragons could be a part of the Napoleonic Wars, you'll believe in the far more unlikely premise that we need more novels about dragons and humans fighting a common foe for the good of everyone involved, especially readers.
Novik sets things up quickly and effectively. Will Laurence, the upward bound Captain of the HMS Reliant, captures a French frigate after a pitched battle. Aboard her, he finds an unhatched dragon egg. As a seaman, he knows of dragons and their value in the battle against Napoleon. But before he can get the egg back to the mainland, it hatches and bonds with him. In the typical fantasy novel, he's be integrated into an elite corps and find himself in a princely position. But in Novik's world, the Aerial Corps are strictly second-class outcasts. His promising career in the military, already a disappointment to his hoity-toity family is now in the gutter. Moreover, he's a bit on the mature side to join in the Aerial Corps and be given his own dragon. This makes him an unwelcome addition to Aerial Corps as well as scuttling his career in the Royal Navy. He finds himself both an outcast and an outsider, forced to learn a new craft. And of course, there are battles in store for the Aerial Corps, the import of which nobody can really wrap their brains around.
This is the first book in a series and it manages to set up the world and the series quite nicely. Novik keeps the plot moving briskly both by giving us entrée to her sort-of alternate history and by providing action within that history. Balancing between these tow poles is tricky, but Novik handles it with ease and even élan. The reader never feels that they’re being given a tour and the action always seems to evolve naturally from the situations at hand. 'His Majesty's Dragon' is something of a page-turner, culminating in a series of battles that are just as fascinating as the evolution of her characters. And that emotional evolution is a key part of the plot and the appeal of the novel. Novik not only moves the in-this-world action along, she also moves the emotional journey of her characters in concert with the action. Satisfying battle scenes complement satisfying character changes. The combination of motion and emotion makes 'His Majesty's Dragon' a remarkably satisfying reading experience.
Novik's characters are an interesting lot. Will Laurence is not a likable guy when we meet him and he doesn't get likable for longer than one would expect. Novik develops Laurence's characters in two arenas. In the world of society and family, Novik take us into a realm of familial tension reminiscent of Jane Austen. She writes of pretty parties and pointed remarks with the same authority she brings to battle scenes. Of course in a book about dragons, it's important that the dragons be effective characters as well as the humans. Novik's Temeraire and his contemporaries are a delight, witty but not simply the font of a series of one-liners. She even integrates them into Will's social life effectively by making Temeraire someone Will can go to when he's fobbed off by his family.
Within the world of the Aerial Corps, characters are equally effective. There society's strictures are of necessity loosened by virtue of the fact that some species of dragons will bond only with women, giving those women an equality that they might otherwise never achieve. As Will learns the ropes, he comes more at ease with himself and his destiny. Simple stuff really, but handled remarkably well.
Novik's novel is not exactly an alternate history in the usual sense of that genre, and reads more like a straightforward historical novel with a large soupcon of the strange. Her naval and aerial battles are wonderfully written, fun, full-blown extravaganzas that don’t go on too long or overwhelm with detail. She puts you in the pilot's seat and you get the ride of your life. She provides the precisely perfect level of detail, enough to immerse the reader in her world-creating history but never so much as to seem like lecture. 'His Majesty's Dragon' is a superb work of both historical and fantastic world-building.
All of this happens by virtue of Novik's prose, which effectively skirts the line between slick modern storytelling and a mildly arch historical style. She lets the reader have the illusion of period prose without the actuality, and the compromise is effective. Some readers may find themselves put off at first when they encounter that dragon's egg in the midst of the sea battle. But Novik keeps her wits about her and believes her own premise so that they reader comes to do so as well. She can quiet things down in her country teatime parties and heat them up with fire-spitting dragons. There's enough luxury here that the book is enjoyable to read without being overly baroque.
'His Majesty's Dragon' proves itself to be a rather remarkable book, far more involving and accessible than one might think given the standard-issue dragons-and-guys premise. Novik's ability to orchestrate emotions and action in perfect counterpoint will sweep away just about any reader willing to give her some forty pages or so. And though this is the first book in series, with two sequels already available, readers won't feel that it is chapter one so much as it is the first adventure. There's clearly more to come and readers will want to experience those adventures, but we're not left hanging in the middle of the action. 'His Majesty's Dragon' is indeed not rocket science at all. It is fine art, executed with military precision, emotional intelligence, and a finely honed imagination. It scales heights not dreamed of in any science.