The Temeraire Series (Naomi Novik)

So I figured I’d start my contributions to the Bookswap with a four-volume series rather than a single book review, because biting off more than I can chew is fun!

The Temeraire series consists, thus far, of four books (His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, and Empire of Ivory) by Brit author Naomi Novik. The first novel was released in the UK as simply Temeraire. The story is set in a world which initially seems very similar to ours in the era of Napoleon’s wars on much of Europe. Britain rules the seas, which is all that’s kept Napoleon from conquering the isles thus far. Captain Will Laurence, of the British Navy, is justifiably proud to be a seaman in this setting, but his stellar career is badly upset when he captures a French vessel which happens to contain black dragon’s egg that is very near to hatching.

Dragon’s egg, you say? Yes, a dragon’s egg.

This is the first eyeblink moment which alerts us to some fundamental differences between Laurence’s world and ours. In this world, dragons — sentient, ferocious, very diverse in appearance and abilities — have evolved alongside humans. Every “civilized” nation has found some way to coexist with the dragons, and in the case of Europe they’ve become part of the military, a kind of living air force long before the successful development of planes or zeppelins. Over time these dragons have been bred for very select purposes, each intended to support various military operations — acid-breathers to act as strafing bombers, for example, or dragons with night-vision for spy operations. Britain has had the poor luck to have relatively few breeds, and none of those especially powerful, so the egg that Laurence finds represents a great potential gain for England. Laurence has no choice but to reluctantly attempt to “harness” this dragon for king and country.

Which, of course, immediately marks this series as different from all the other tales about dragons out there in fantasyland. In most of these stories — most notably Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern”, but also Jane Yolen’s “The Pit Dragon” series — dragons are every childhood fantasy rolled into one: a pony, a faithful dog, an imaginary (or just telepathic) best friend. In Novik’s world, dragons are people, and no sane human being eagerly takes on responsibility for another person without considerable trepidation and consequences. This is an “adult” take on the concept that I find refreshing. The consequences for Laurence, when he successfully convinces the newborn dragon Temeraire to bond with him, are immediate and unpleasant. He loses his respectable commission in the Navy and is then forced to join the Aerial Corps, a branch of the military looked down-upon because of its rumored “unusual practices” and because fighting in the air is somehow considered less manly than fighting on the ground or sea. He’s forced into basic training all over again, because nothing in his entire military career has adequately prepared him for life with dragons.

The immediate reward, however, is the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. They’re not parent and child, or master and pet; they’re friends, and over the course of the stories their friendship increasingly deepens. It’s here that it becomes clearest that Novik is deliberately paying homage to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin novels and the famous friendship therein. The books resemble O’Brian’s works in other ways as well, most notably in using the idioms and forms of English in that period, and in sometimes describing important events obliquely, after-the-fact, or not at all. Readers who are used to modern didacticism may find this difficult to get used to.

The books cover several years in the pair’s life. In the first book of the series, Temeraire and Laurence train to join the British Aerial Corps while trying to resolve several mysteries surrounding Temeraire’s existence: what kind of dragon is he? They eventually determine he’s a rare Chinese breed, but why would the Chinese offer a dragon to Napoleon? And since the Chinese are considered the best dragon breeders in the world, just how “special” is Temeraire? All of these questions are answered over the subsequent books, through excursions to China, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), and eventually southern Africa.

In the meantime, we learn more about this world through Temeraire’s eyes, and here it becomes even more clear that this world only superficially resembles our own. For one thing, Laurence is forced to confront gender equality centuries sooner than his fellow countrymen, due to the presence of women in the Aerial Corps (one of the “unusual practices” that has the Corps in such disrepute). Several breeds of dragon will only accept female captains, so this has necessitated the presence of a small group of extremely liberated women in the corps, whose existence is kept secret so as not to scandalize the rest of British society. Laurence is at first horrified to discover this himself — women!!! in combat!!! wearing pants!!! smoking cigars!!!1!! — and then one of the women summarily appropriates him for a sexual relationship. Suddenly he quits whining about it.

In another example of this-ain’t-Kansas, it increasingly becomes clear that dragons in Britain, like black slaves and most women, are yet another oppressed group in a society that is stiflingly stratified by class, gender, race, and now species. Even Temeraire, who is more intelligent than most British dragons, does not question the trappings of this oppression until they go to other societies where dragons are more equitably treated — namely China, where dragons earn money, compose poetry, take Imperial service exams if they so choose, and in general are treated as fully-functioning members of society. Yet instead of focusing on the plight of the dragons as an allegory for human oppression — and ignoring human oppression, as too many fantasy novels do — Novik keeps the spotlight on both. Laurence is alternately passionate about his own abolitionist principles, and defensive/guilty about the way England treats her dragons as little better than beasts of burden (rather than the intelligent creatures they are). I look forward to seeing how Novik resolves this conflict in future novels.

Another difference that gradually becomes clear in these novels is that only Europe still resembles our world in any meaningful way. The Americas appear to have been colonized, but less than successfully. The still-powerful Inca in this era have fought off the Spanish with firebreathing dragons, while the Native Americans of the plains seem to have slowed the advance of colonialism with the aid of palomino dragons (and, irony of ironies, they give the British dragons a virulent disease rather like smallpox). Africa is a special treat in this world where colonialism failed miserably; though slavery exists, it is far less widespread than it became in our world. This is in part because the European powers have not yet managed to plant more than a handful of colonies on the continent’s coastline, due to the presence of ferocious feral dragons in the interior. Turns out in book 4 that these ferocious dragons are not feral — they’re partnered with the Tswana, a southern ethnic group that hasn’t taken kindly to European slave-raids or colonization attempts, and they’ve been gathering their strength all this time to drive the invaders out. This happens with unfortunate timing — right when Laurence and Temeraire go to Cape Town, South Africa to try and find a cure for the aforementioned dragon plague. (That this puts Laurence and Temeraire on the less-than-heroic side of the moral ledger is just one of the treats of the series; Novik does a good job of honestly depicting some of the shadier things the British Empire did in this time period.)

There are some flaws in the series, I should note. The language/style really does make it hard to read at times; there’s definitely a learning curve involved. Aside from Laurence and Temeraire, the books don’t spend a lot of time on characterization, which I found irritating (especially when I wanted to see more of some characters). Black Powder War in particular gets tedious in its descriptions of the dangerous land-journey undertaken by the protagonists from China to England. I could have done without the detailed focus on Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia — but then I found most of the military detail tedious; just a matter of taste. Fortunately, Novik successfully kept me interested through the addition of some truly memorable characters, like Iskierka, a fire-breathing female Turkish dragon whose bloodthirsty, amoral nature becomes a running joke throughout the series. And a growing favorite for me is Jane Roland, Laurence’s older-woman lover who eventually becomes an admiral in the Corps. Her equanimity makes a perfect foil for Laurence’s impulsive nature, as when Laurence suddenly decides they need to do the respectable thing and get married; she basically pats him on the head and says no-but-thanks-for-the-thought-dear-boy, then goes on about her business while he sits flummoxed in her wake.

So all in all, this is a wholehearted recommendation.

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