Originally published on the The Old Salt Blog
At the edges of the old charts in waters not yet explored, the cartographers wrote “here be dragons”. In her book, His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik moves the dragons to the center of the chart. “When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon’s egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future - an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature.”
Yes, in His Majesty’s Dragon, (published in Great Britain as “Temeraire”), Ms. Novik has brought together Georgian nautical fiction and dragonology, creating a parallel universe in which dragons helped defeat the Armada and fought with Nelson at the Nile and Trafalgar. Does the cross-over between two genres work?
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “If this is the sort of book you like, you’ll like this book.” So far roughly 600,00 of the books of this series have been sold, so very many people have indeed liked this book. If, however, you believe the tag line that His Majesty’s Dragon is “Patrick O’Brian with dragons” you may be disappointed.
Skilled writers of nautical fiction selectively use idiosyncratic detail to the illuminate world of a man-of-war. In His Majesty’s Dragon, the details on shipboard are often vague or simply wrong. Given the popularity of the series, most readers probably don’t mind, but as a fan of nautical fiction, I found it distracting and a bit annoying.
Other reviews have noted that Ms. Novik has read all of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, which is a good thing in its own right, but doesn’t entirely qualify one as either able seaman or as writer able to capture the world aboard ship. From the initial brief battle scene, nothing felt authentic. By the second page with the line “…the sails above them were in a sad tangle, and that not from the battle, but of the storm which had passed but this morning ...” it became clear that whatever the book’s strengths may be, the sections aboard ship would not likely be among them.
Fortunately I noted only one real howler. After Cpt. Laurence flies dragons, he finds waterborne transportation to be rather slow.
“The cutter was an elegant, clean-lined vessel, and she bore Laurence to the Hibernia at a pace that he once would have thought was the height of speed; now he stood looking out along her bowsprit, running before the wind, the breeze in his face seemed barely anything.”
If they are “running before the wind” and the good captain is looking forward, the wind is therefore on his back, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that the ” breeze in his face seemed barely anything.” There should be no breeze in his face at all.
Fortunately, relatively little time is spent aboard ship and I found the reading somewhat easier once the Capt. Laurence flew off with the dragon, Temeraire.
I generally like dragons in fiction. I was a real Anne McCaffrey fan, reading the first of her Dragonriders of Pern series, several decades ago. Much more recently I made it through Ergon, which as young adult fiction wasn’t terrible. Nevertheless, even with a modest fondness for dragons, I never quite bought into band of dragons in His Majesty’s Dragon.
Temeraire is so remarkably smart and so terribly perceptive that he seemed to be smarter than all those around him. As soon as he emerged from his egg, he began speaking in English, and later French, and seemed extremely knowledgeable for a newborn. ( We learned later in the book that the dragons learn language through the shell before hatching.) Oddly, I found myself thinking of Kit, the car in the American television show, Knight Rider, where the talking car was always smarter than the driver. Unlike the somewhat supercilious computer, however, Temeraire and all the other dragons become immediately emotionally bonded to their riders and seem at times like huge highly intelligent talking puppies who can also fly, drop bombs and in some cases, spit acid or fire.
And what of the humans? Some reviewers have mentioned Jane Austen. Unfortunately the characters and the writing itself reminds me more of Harlequin than Austen. Captain Laurence struck me as a bundle of Regency conventions and attitudes without ever fully coming to life. Novick has added two female dragon-riders in a nod to female empowerment, which is a good thing, though the only real emotional attachments in the book are between Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, sort of like the cliché cowboy’s love for his horse, except that in this case, the horse is as big as a ship, and can talk and fly at the same time.
Overall the pacing of the book is not bad and the climactic battle to save England, fought by the outnumbered English dragons against an aerial armada of French dragons, is fine, I suppose, though by this time I reached that point in the book, I was finding all the dragon terminology numbing rather than engaging. I couldn’t tell a Yellow Reaper dragon from a Greyling, a Winchester, Poux-de-Ceil, Petit Chevalier or a Pascal’s Blue. (Perhaps I should now feel more sympathy for novice readers of nautical fiction who can’t tell a futtock from a buttock.)
The Temeraire books, of which His Majesty’s Dragon is but the first, have been very popular and I wish Ms. Novik joy in her success. As noted on the blurb on the book’s cover, Stephen King found it “terrifically entertaining.” Regrettably, I do not share his opinion.
Description of: His Majesty’s Dragon
Author: Naomi Novik