Book Review: The First Five Temeraire Books

Note: This review includes books number 54, 55, 56, 57, and 58 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

Outside of Terry Pratchett and a brief dip into Stephen Erickson, I had largely given up on the whole fantasy genre for all the obvious reasons. I kept hearing about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, though, usually accompanied by the pithy but intriguing description “It’s the Napoleonic Wars, except with dragons.” Indeed, it turned out to be just that: a story from the war between France and Britain set in an alternate history where enormous dragons form air corps on all sides and thus rewrite the rules of warfare. This post covers the first five books in the series: His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, and Victory of Eagles.

The story starts when British sea Captain Will Laurence captures a French ship bearing an unusual dragon egg. When Laurence is unable to get into a friendly port before the egg hatches, the newborn dragon Temeraire imprints on him, linking the two together. This is at first an unwelcome shock to Laurence, who is faced with the prospect of giving up a hard-earned and lucrative career as an officer in the British Royal Navy and replacing it with the wild and largely mysterious life of an Aviator and dragon handler in the air corps. Bur Laurence rises to the challenge and warms to his new life when his training as an Aviator begins and his relationship with the curious, noble, and intelligent Temeraire develops.

From there, the books arrange themselves into basically a set of serial adventures, with Laurence and Temeraire moving from one predicament to the next and having to see their way through. Part of Novik’s formula for each book usually involves a fantastic new location and travels for the dragon and his crew, so that we don’t get much time to settle into one location or situation before moving on to a fresh one. The second book has them on a sea voyage to China on a diplomatic mission, while the third book has them leaving China overland through the Ottoman and Prussian empires, and the fourth has them braving the interior of Africa in order to find a cure for a deadly draconic plague that’s threatening to wipe out England’s air corps. The fifth book returns home to England, where Laurance and Temeraire’s fortunes are reversed and they desparately try to repel an invasion by Napoleon’s armies, who are proving to be much more clever at adapting dragons to the cause of warfare.

Those subplots aside, two meta plots have run through all five of the books so far. The first is Temeraire’s (and eventaully Laurance’s) fight for draconic equality. The dragons are intelligent and possessed of free will, but are often seen and used as mere tools or beasts of burden by their owners. Like, say, a ship or cannon that can talk and breed. Novik draws several parallels here to the problem of human slavery, which England was also wrestling with at the time. The second thread tying all the books together is the war with Napoleon, with skirmishes and major battles providing the climax for more than one book.

I liked these books well enough, not only because they’re set in a time period mostly unknown to me and NOT in just another Middle Earth knockoff. But also largely because they manage to eschew many of the tired standards of the fantasy genre. Here are some of the things that you will NOT find:

  • An epic storyline to save the world (Napoleon aside)
  • Multiple points of view tracking multiple characters (Novik doesn’t break form Laurance’s point of view until book 5, and then only temporarily)
  • A protagonist who starts as farm boy but who is secretly of high birth (both Laurance and Temerare are already of high birth)
  • An apprenticeship to some wise teacher who awakens a hidden power
  • A quest to destroy/reclaim some magic foozle
  • A king being corrupted by a wicked adviser

Instead, we get a fairly small and personal story about Laurence and his journey into a new career set against a more epic backdrop. There’s also some interesting world building going on, with Novik’s descriptions of how warfare changes when you have thirty ton dragons on the battlefield, each capable of carrying an entire squad of riflemen and bombardiers in addition to their own teeth, claws, and occasional breath weapon. I also liked that dragons are the only magical things to appear in the books, and even then they’re treated largely as intelligent animals. It’s fantastic enough to be exciting and fanciful, but different enough from the usual tripe to keep your attention.

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