His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 2006
Anyhow. I am rambling, because what can I say that doesn't sound delirious about Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon? I love this book. I read it, and then flipped back and read parts of it, and I then did that thing I know I shouldn't do and read the first chapter of the next book in the series and now I desperately need to know what happens next.
For a brief summary, take history. Take Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Take one very talented, principled, and dutiful captain in Nelson's Navy. Then add dragons. Actually, add one specific dragon egg, captured by that dutiful captain (let's call him Laurence) from a French man-of-war, that happens to hatch on his ship. The resulting dragon picks Laurence to be his aviator, and you have one very alarmed and disgruntled captain, a very charming and erudite dragon, and a series of extremely entertaining and somehow entirely believable adventures as they learn together how to become part of Britain's aerial defence against the dragon corps of Napoleon's army.
I love this book so much I want to eat it.
This is a book that has been carefully, skillfully crafted such that the writing fades into the background (not an easy feat), the plot sweeps you along, and the characters -- even, perhaps especially, the non-human ones -- worm their way into your heart and consciousness. The partnership of Laurence and the dragon Temeraire is so incredibly genuine and warm and wonderful, so honest and touching, that it absolutely shines in my experience of fictional friendships. Separately, they are fantastic characters and I think I love them both, but together they are unstoppable.
The world is ours but a bit sideways, and the careful work Novik has done to create it is never in-your-face evident, but always a completely reasonable and believable framework from which the story hangs. I think one of the things I can't quite understand, but absolutely appreciate, is how believable everything is. I think it may be partially how everything is so understated, related to the reader as common-place, and also that we experience most of the fantasy elements through an outsider's eyes. Laurence has always been aware of dragons and the Aerial Corps, but that has not been his world up to the beginning of the book. As it begins to become his world, we are slowly accustomed to the changes as he begins to grow accustomed to them, too.
It is a great adventure, and a stirring one. There is little to no romance, for those who find that tiresome, and for those of us who usually prefer to have at least a hint of it somewhere, I can solemnly swear that I did not miss it in the slightest. There are things to be said about the nature of duty and loyalty and friendship, about civility and honesty, kindness, and the sorrows and horrors of war. None of it is said in a preachy or intrusive way. It is integral to the characters and plot. All of this -- the world, the relationships, the philosophy, could be clumsy or over-the-top in the hands of the wrong writer. But this one gets it right.
What saddens me is that while I have seen this book crop up various places over the past two years, if our library statistics are anything to go by, not nearly enough people are reading this series. If you are a history buff looking for fiction out of the norm, try this. If you are a fantasy fan but aren't sure you're a fan of historical fiction, try this. If you're a fantasy fan who has read everything and want something new, try this. If you want a great, well-crafted, entertaining, heartening story, read this book. I might even try it on my father, who doesn't really go for fantasy -- but I think there are elements in here that he, as a reader of James Clavell and Wilbur Smith will like. You will be hearing about more Novik from me shortly, and if Throne of Jade is any bit as good as its predecessor, you can bet that Novik will be the next on my list of authors to autobuy. If I can stand Laurence and Temeraire being thrust into more danger for foolish political reasons, that is...