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I wasn’t expecting much when I picked up His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik. To tell the truth, if I’d seen it in a bookstore, I wouldn’t have picked it up. But it was recommended to me by a reliable source as a better alternative to Eragon, and it was a historical fantasy set during the Napoleonic Wars. I figured I’d give it a try. I didn’t regret it.
I don’t love this book because Naomi Novik’s writing style is equal to that of Tolkien. I don’t love this book because it’s perfect in every way – indeed, some of the subplots were rather weak, and should have been changed or cut out altogether. Rather, I love this book because Naomi Novik took a boring, cliche idea, and put on a spin on it that’s so brilliant and yet mind-bogglingly obvious I have to wonder why in the world someone hadn’t thought of it before.
In all of the previous dragonrider books I’d read, there was always one rider. One lone human on a dragon the size of a house. And somehow, that was supposed to be special and sensible and realistic. But no – if a dragon is that large, then why is there only one rider? Why can’t there be more? Having one rider on a dragon is like putting one passenger on a plane that could potentially carry fifty.
And that’s where Naomi Novik takes the Temeraire series. Her fight scenes aren’t one-on-one affairs, they’re all-out aerial battles fought with crew members dangling precariously from leather harnesses, forced to make the best of inaccurate rifles. It’s true, the captain has a special relationship with his or her dragon, but there’s the distinct feeling of a team – that the captain would really be nowhere without the support of a crew behind him. What’s more, Novik makes the battles work – they’re clearly planned out and make sense in a historical context.
The main characters are also unusually engaging – Laurence, as a former naval captain who accidentally stumbles upon a dragon egg, is plunged into a branch of the military completely unlike the one in which he’s served, and his confusion and stiffness are only to be expected. While his stubbornness and sense of propriety are on occasion mildly irritating, his reactions to elements of the Aerial Corps are only natural given his character. And Temeraire, the dragon that hatches from the egg Laurence discovers, is more than a mere sentient ship – his naive, inquisitive personality is adorably appealing, and the political views he develops at times contrast sharply with those of Laurence.
And then there’s the matter of the main villain – there is none. There’s no evil overlord to face, no Dark Lord Napoleon who tries to foil Laurence’s and Temeraire’s plans at every turn. In fact, despite the fact that the book is from a strictly British point of view, Novik portrays Napoleon fairly, and his character only grows more sympathetic as the series goes on. Napoleon doesn’t even make an appearance during the first book – it’s just the British Aerial Corps versus the French Armee de l’Air. It’s a lovely change; as the battles grow steadily more climactic, one gets the feeling that they’re in a war against other dragon-crews just like theirs, not fighting some unseen maniac.
Like I said, His Majesty’s Dragon isn’t perfect. The subplot with Choiseul is ultimately disappointing in its resolution, and Laurence’s love interest is perilously close to a Mary-Sue and should have been cut (thankfully, there’s a lot less of her in the following books). Still, it’s a refreshingly original spin on an overused idea, and all in all a very good read.