Thursday, August 21, 2014

"His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik (2006)

Your friend Andrea gave you this book and told you that you would love it. She summarized by describing it as, "The history of the Napoleonic Wars... but with freaking dragons! It's perfect for you." It's good to have friends who totally get you, you know?

Andrea was right. That is exactly what this book is. It's like a work of historical fiction set in England in 1805, but instead of doing what historical fiction traditionally does, instead of imagining what famous historical figures might have been privately thinking, instead of using an established history as an opportunity to see familiar events through new eyes, Novik uses European history as a jumping off point to see what differences might have arisen if human history had included massive mythological flying beasts. Novik is unapologetic. There is no hint of irony or guilt. It's brilliant.

And these beasts are massive, big enough to support not just one lone rider but whole crews of men (and women, despite the cultural taboo of women actually doing anything). The flight crews are trained to move around their dragons, securing their positions with carabiners snapped onto the leather harnesses trussed all around their dragons. The teams fire vollies of rifles against enemy dragons and their crews, drop crude bombs on targets below, signal allied flight crews to coordinate plans and maneuvers, and render first aide to the dragon if the need arises. Each dragon is trained to fly with flights of others in mutually supportive formations, allowing the strengths of different breeds (and there are many different breeds) to compensate for the weaknesses in others. Tactics and strategies for the use of these dragon flights are reminiscent of the fledgling air forces of the two World Wars that wouldn't be fought for over one hundred more years (at least, in our dragonless reality).  Novik has created a completely new and surprisingly modern way to imagine these familiar mythological creatures, not to mention that she tells one charming story along the way.

The main characters in the book are not initially members of the British Aerial Corps. William Laurence is captain of the HMS Reliant, a 36-gun British frigate engaged on the high seas. Laurence is a consummate Naval Officer. The book opens with he and his crew boarding and capturing a French ship just west of Spain. On board the French ship is a prize unlike anything Laurence had expected, an unhatched dragon egg. When the dragon hatches and chooses Laurence as his rider (a choice that is not really negotiable) the two make their way back to the British Isles to be formally trained in the arts of aerial warfare.

It soon becomes clear that Laurence's dragon, named Temeraire, is not an ordinary breed of dragon. He is smarter, more curious and more independent than the other beasts. As fascinating as the concept of the novel is, as thrilling as the few battle scenes are, the thing that made "His Majesty's Dragon" so enjoyable to read was the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence is mired in the gentility of 19th Century England and the professionalism of the King's Navy. The book has some of the best shades of Jane Austen. Laurence feels obligated to behave every inch the gentleman at all times and finds the informailty of the Aerial Corps confusing and off-putting. He finds himself out of step with his society for the first time and leans upon his closest relationship, that with his dragon.

Temeraire loves to be read to, and before long, he understands even advanced mathematics and physics better than Captain Laurence. The massive black dragon loves music and baths. He appreciates respect and becomes fiercely loyal towards his friend and rider. He does not tolerate injustice or cruelty and ultimately becomes a more endearing character than any human in the story. The relationship between Laurence and Temeraire is what defines the book, not the actions they take.

Having dragons in the world does not significantly change the timeline of history in this book. Admiral Nelson is still wins the battle of Trafalgar. King George is still the monarch of England. Napoleon Bonaparte still becomes the emperor of France after their bloody revolution. The concept is intriguing; is history fixed? Is the book already written? Would adding huge dragons have changed who won what battle during the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Revolution, or the American Civil War? What if the Comanches had ridden on the backs of dragons, or the Zulu, or the Vietcong? All things being equal, would the fabric of history have been radically changed at any point if something as fundamental as the notion that "dragons aren't real" were turned on its head.

It may seem like a silly question, but it's not. Historians and anthropologists often point out how horses were instrumental the the conquest of the Americas, how radically different warfare became after the advent of flight, how guns and steel define the difference between the conquerors and the conquered in Earth's history. Books like this make you wonder if it has ever really been the technologies that were employed that were so important in human history, or if it was truly the content of the characters of the people involved, if it was the relationships that they valued that made all the difference. Thankfully, Novik leaves this lingering question tantalizingly unanswered.

However, in "His Majesty's Dragon" Napoleon does eventually alter our timeline after his defeat at Trafalgar. Novik thinks of a clever and unexpected way to innovate a new strategy and use these mythical beasts of the air to attempt another invasion of England, and she kept you on the edge of your seat as you read how the dragons of the Great Britain tried to stave off disaster. It is perfect fodder for an arm chair general like you to try to out-think this author on how else the history of the Napoleonic Wars would have changed with a newly added, aerial dimension. Will Novik keep true to the rest of the history of the 19th Century or will Laurence and Temeraire go on to alter the course of the world in ways that will forge an entirely new timeline?

This was the first in an ongoing series of books (the ninth is due out next year) and you are sure you will end up reading as many of them as you can as fast as you can to see how your questions will be answered.

On to the next book!

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