Book Review: Temeraire
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Depending upon where
you are in the world, this book will have a different title. For me
it will always be Temeraire but elsewhere it is called “His
Majesty’s Dragon.” While last year I picked Naiomi Novik’s
“Uprooted” as the best book of the year, it was with some
comments on the leaps and bounds that her writing had advanced since
her first fantasy outings in this series. More recently I have
returned to this faithful dragon and discovered that what it lacks in
the depth and fairytale splendour of her latest book it more than
makes up for in entertainment and wit.
This series is an odd historical fantasy mash-up of a nautical military adventure in the style of Patrick O’Brian and the fantastical element of dragons. Not magic, not anything else, just dragons. Huge scaly flying creatures that are used in the same manner as ships of the line in the navy. How this all functions, with the dragon’s crew climbing the rigging and the captain bonded to their reptilian compatriots, makes up the backbone of the book. The unique details of the different breeds of dragon, how they are deployed by the military and how this all impacts Britain’s war with Napoleon makes up a significant portion of the rest.
The main characters of Laurence and Temeraire, his dragon, are likeable to a fault, quite capable of carrying the entire book on the back of their friendship. Indeed, whenever the dragon or officer were thwarted I found myself getting personally offended on their behalf, which probably gives you a little hint of just how well this book is written. The young dragon is an oddity among the breeds that form the British Arial Corps, trying very hard to learn from the captains and senior dragons at much the same rate that we gradually learn about the world.
The minutiae of caring for dragons and their unique relationships with humanity furnish the book with some much needed depth, illustrating the differences in perspective and anatomy in humorous moments of miscommunication.
The decision to make Temeraire into a fully developed character in his own right rather than simply a vessel of war like the setting demands provides the book with a powerful emotional core. While the contrast between our contemporary social mores and morals and those practised in the early 1800s creates some uncomfortable moral dissonance for the reader, as an outsider to British society Temeraire’s observations and wilful objections create the perfect counter. Even Laurence is not above following the strictures of class and society to the point of his own destruction before Temeraire saves him.
Both this book and the following series are endlessly entertaining, though they have highs and lows. Temeraire is still not quite as powerful a story as Uprooted, but that is to be expected. Where Uprooted created a world from scratch to suit its story this one is forced to follow historical strictures, much like the characters do, with the exception, in both cases, of the dragons.