His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik is an exciting book that reinvigorates dragon/adventure books. It explores common fantasy tropes such as dragons as bonded partners, coming of age, and honor. It is also a delightful mix of historical fiction, alternative history, and naval adventures.
Captain Laurence is a a naval captain whose ship captures a French one. Despite hopeless odds, the French crew had fought valiently to save their cargo : a single dragon egg close to hatching. Shortly after this bounty is transfered to Captain Laurence’s ship, it hatches into a beautiful black dragon. This dragon chooses Captain Laurence as its companion and he names the dragon Temeraire. Dragons need dedicated companions to care for them and so Captain Laurence is forced to step down from his post. At first he is resentful of how his plans for his life are disrupted, but by the end of the book it is clear he can imagine no other life but that of one with Temeraire.
The story is set in the early 1800s when Napoleon Bonaparte was still terrorizing Europe. Novik does a fine job of infusing the story with worry and fear that the French will successfully invade England. (The timeline of traditional history is present but with the addition of dragons as offensive parts of historic battles.) Captain Laurence and Temeraire are sent to Scotland to train with other young dragons. After about six months, their training complete, they join the aerial defense corp in the south of England. There are a number of suspenseful battles and intriguing details of how dragons and humans cooperate to fight. Imagine World War II aerial battles in which the flight crew is suspended on the outside of the airplane and you’ll have an idea of the mechanics of dragon fighting. Luckily, the ending of the book is satisfying, yet leaves room for the next in the series.
Temeraire is a fantastic dragon with unusual abilities; the English have never seen a dragon quite like him because he is an oriental one. Temeraire is highly intelligent, very maneuverable, and has an offensive capability that is revealed in the climax of the book. He’s a very independent thinker, often wondering why dragons don’t have equal rights with humans. Because he spent the first months of his life as an egg in the company of French sailors, he’s able to speak both English and French. He enjoys being read to, particularly scientific books. Captain Laurence debates duty and honor with him frequently. Laurence is far more inclined to do what is required of him by duty; Temeraire is more likely to do what is expedient and in his best interest.
I do not obey you because it is a habit and I cannot think for myself; I do it because I know you are worthy of being obeyed. You would never treat me unkindly, and you would not ask me to do something dangerous or unpleasant without cause.
— Temeraire, Celestial Dragon
I really enjoyed this story. It reminded me of the best of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Patrick O’Brien’s naval adventure books. There was a lot of action in His Majesty’s Dragon but an equal amount of time was spent on world building and developing characters. Highly recommended!