May 9, 2011

Temeraire (aka His Majesty’s Dragon) by Naomi Novik

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

Set in an alternate Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, Temeraire (His Majesty’s Dragon in the US edition) tells the story of a navy officer, William Laurence, who unexpectedly finds himself in charge of a dragon egg. In the world of Temeraire, dragons play a key role in warfare, particularly between Napoleonic France and the rest of Europe. Laurence finds the dragon egg in a French warship that his own manages to capture, and he’s told that the egg is dangerously close to hatching.

As dragons are known to go feral if not presented with a human companion immediately after their hatching, the navy men on board the ship draw lots to see who will have to face what is to them a dreaded fate. But the dragon hatchling (soon to be named Temeraire) has his own ideas: he completely ignores his appointed companion and responds to Laurence instead. This means the end of his navy career, social ostracism, the death of his marriage prospects, and a forced entry into the disreputable Aerial Corps.

The most interesting thing about this novel is the relationship Laurence and Temeraire develop. It puts a spin on the whole special-bond-with-a-mythical-creature trope, and it manages to be both incredibly sweet and remarkably unsentimental. What makes it work so well is the context in which it takes place. Aviators in general develop strong bonds with their dragons, and these affections are used to control the dragons. A few weeks after Temeraire’s hatching, we’re told that:
Laurence no longer thought of him as a creature for whom he was responsible, but rather as an intimate friend, already the dearest in his life, and one to be depended upon without question.
Later in the series, this is problematised in a way that allows for no easy or convenient answers. But as I was saying, what interested me about this first book was the fact that an unguardedly intimate and vulnerable bond was allowed to develop in this particular historical and cultural context. The members of the Aerial Corps are Regency military men: they live in a culture that stresses honour, courage, keeping up appearances, saving face, and generally living up to a narrowly defined ideal of masculinity (there are female aviators in the Corps, as I’ll discuss further ahead, but this is true for them as well).

Yet their relationship with their dragons provides a safe outlet for the expression of emotions that would otherwise be confined to the sphere of their private lives – private lives which, once they enter the service, will mostly remain outside their reach. It was particularly interesting to see how the intensity of the aviator-dragon bond was something that was not only accepted but expected and encouraged inside the Corps, and yet it was marginalised by the world at large and contributed considerably to their dubious reputation. It doesn’t take much to realise what kind of affective bonds this is true of in the real world. Needless to say, this gives the series a lot of queer subtext that one can have fun exploring.

I was also very interested in Novik’s inclusion of many of the key political events and ideas of the early nineteenth century into the story: the French and American Revolutions, altering concepts of legitimate authority, duty, loyalty to a nation or to one’s ideals, changing political systems, and, as the series progresses, slavery and the Abolitionist movement, the ethics of global commerce, Colonialism and entitlement, and so on. All of these issues play out not only in the background, but also in the character’s lives.

A character like Temeraire – intelligent, intellectually curious, and with not much of a cultural baggage to steer him in one direction or another – is allowed to ask questions about all of these things that would almost inevitably sound anachronistic coming from one of the human characters. He is, as Laurence playfully calls him, a “Jacobin of a dragon”; as he wonders about the status quo, Laurence is forced to listen to his questions. Temeraire raises points he’d likely dismiss as mutinous coming from anyone else, but their relationship, with its mix of intimacy and intellectual respect, forces him to consider them.

The fact that Temeraire is allowed to ask all these questions without compromising the novel’s historical context is probably half of the appeal of telling a story like this. Because you have Temeraire, you can also have Laurence be less than happy about the presence of women in the Corps without needing to either resort to unrealistic didacticism or having to leave his attitude unexamined. And you can also have a character like Captain Riley, whose family is involved in the slave trade, who is challenged about it but never portrayed as an inhuman monster.

Let me give you an example of what Temeraire and Laurance’s exchanges are like:
‘Some of the laws which I have heard make very little sense, and I do not know that I would obey them if it were not to oblige you. It seems to me that if you wish to apply laws to us, it were only reasonable to consult us on them, and from what you have read to me about Parliament, I do not think any dragons are invited to go there.’
‘Next you will cry out against taxation without representation, and throw a basket of tea into the harbour,’ Laurence said. ‘You are indeed a very Jacobin at heart, and I think I must give up trying to cure you of it; I can but wash my hands and deny responsibility.’
And (this is actually from the second book, Throne of Jade):
‘You may as well say, that if a creature will not serve people and learn their habits, it is not intelligent, and had just as well be killed,’ Temeraire said, his ruff quivering; he had lifted his head, stirred-up.
‘Not at all,’ Laurence said, trying to think of how he could give comfort; to him the lack of sentience in the creature’s eyes had been wholly obvious. ‘I am saying only that if they were intelligent, they would be able to learn to communicate, and we would have heard of it. After all, many dragons do not choose to take on a handler, and refuse to speak with men at all; it does not happen so very often, but it does, and no one thinks dragons unintelligent for it,’ he added, thinking he had chanced on a happy example.
‘But what happens to them, if they do? Temeraire said. ‘What should happen to me, if I were to refuse to obey? I do not mean a single order; what if I did not wish to fight in the Corps at all?’
And now for some questions which some fellow book bloggers very helpfully asked me about the book. Jodie asked: How great on a scale of 1 to awesome did you think this book was? And where do you put it on your mental scale of ‘books about dragons that I have read’? Likewise, Jeanne wanted to know how I think the series compares to Jo Walton’s Tooth & Claw.

First of all, I rate it awesome plus one. I’m not sure if it’s my favourite dragon book ever (it’s unlikely anything will ever beat Ursula Le Guin’s The Other Wind for me), but I feel bad comparing it to others because it uses the dragons-are-real premise in such a unique way. As for Tooth & Claw, I probably liked it better than any individual books in Novik’s series, but if I consider it as a whole, Novik probably wins. But again, they are very different, and I particularly like how they each accurately capture the mood of the time period they’re set in (Novik is Regency; Walton mock-Victorian).

More questions from Jodie:

Who was your favourite female character?

Captain Catherine Harcourt, though I also really liked Jane and Emily Roland. All three are members of the Corps, but they’re at different states of their careers, and I found Catherine’s particularly interesting. Emily is still young and passes for a boy, Jane is established enough that she shrugs off most sexist remarks. But Catherine, as a young Captain, can’t quite afford to do so. I don’t want to spoil the entire book, but I really liked how Laurence’s attitude towards her changed as he began to make sense of her position.

If dragons count, though, I’ll have to say Iskierka from later in the series. She’s adorable and hilarious and reminded me of Cera from The Land Before Time.

What did you think of the stuff about the social alienation of being part of the Dragon Corps?

I thought it was cleverly done, actually – much like Temeraire’s presence, it leaves Novik room to do things that would otherwise compromise the historical foundations of the story. The social stigma attached to the Corps means they’re slightly outside the dominant cultural norms of their time, and that makes behaviours that would otherwise shake believability permissible. But at the same time, in the first book Laurence is himself a newcomer to the Corps. He’s a navy man and the son of a Lord (Fun fact1: Laurence’s family estate, Wollaton Hall and Park, was one of my favourite hangouts when I lived in Nottingham). When he first joints the Corps, he finds his fellow officer’s informality both shocking and offensive, but with time his perspective changes. His transition from a social context heavily based on rank to a far more relaxed one is absolutely believable. This allows Novik to slowly carve her characters a space outside Regency formality without the whole story falling apart in the process.

How did you feel about the amount of battle scenes - just right, or too many?

I’m not much of a battle scene-y person myself, so the fact that I only got bored for about half a page is probably a very good sign. I found them exciting for the most part, and most of all I enjoyed the fact that they contributed to character development. The things that happen in the height of battle tell us things about the characters and affect their relationships, and that makes them more than just action for action’s sake.

Though I’m mostly focusing on the first novel here, this post has been sitting half-finished in my drafts folder for long enough that I am now up to book six in the series, and feel absolutely dismayed that there’s a whole year to wait until the next one is out. Marg asked me if I found the last few books disappointing compared to the first, and I have to say that fortunately I didn’t. I noticed that Tongues of Serpents in particular got a considerable number of bad reviews, but I actually enjoyed it a lot. The pace was slower than in previous books, but there was still enough to keep me interested. Also, without giving anything away I’ll say that I foresee what the last few books have been building up to having an awesome payoff towards the end of the series, and that keeps me happy as a reader.

I should probably mention that I read the first book in March, and then the remaining five over the last couple of weeks. I read two of them in one sitting in two consecutive evenings last week, which should tell you something about the degree of my addiction. They have proved invaluable in keeping me sane when I was at my busiest, and I’m incredibly thankful for any book that could manage to do that at all. By now I’ve reached the point where I’m so attached to the characters that I’d gladly read anything that allows me to spend more time with them – including 400 pages of Laurence and Temeraire simply sitting around and chatting. I’m glad there’s more to come, even if there’s a long wait ahead. I’ll miss this series terribly when it’s over.

They read it too: Stella Matutina, A Book a Week, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, The Literary Omnivore, Book Gazing, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Birdbrain(ed) Blog, Jenny’s Books, Epiphany, Eve’s Alexandria, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Susan Hated Literature, Read Warbler, The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader, Honeyed Words, Giraffe Days


1 Well, fun if you’re me, anyway.


  1. Dear Ana,

    You now officially need a delicious account so I can pile in Temeraire fic recs for you to read. SURELY YOU HAVE ENOUGH TIME FOR THIS IF YOU READ ALL THE BOOKS THAT FAST.

    Things everyone should ship with me (THIS MEANS YOU, BUT ONLY IF YOU WANT TO I WON'T LIKE PRESSURE YOU OR ANYTHING): Laurence/Granby and Temeraire/Iskierka

    :D :D :D :D

  2. Great post Ana. I'm coming back to read the Q&A after I've actually read the book (which should be soon!) I've also never heard of Tooth & Claw so will be checking it out:)

  3. I believe you know how much I adored this book. :) I love the questions, and your answers. These books are fantastic and deserve to be read by everyone, I think.

    (Incidentally, I would *also* read 400 pages of Laurence and Temeraire sitting around and chatting. Happily.)

  4. This book and series sounds really excellent, and though I have not yet read any dragon books, my daughter loves them and has read many. I am betting that this is a series that would hold both of our attentions, and that it would probably be a great series to share with her. I also picked up the titles of a few of the other books that you mentioned in your review, as I think that they would also really be great reads for both of us. Fantastic and thorough review on this one, Anna. I am looking forward to seeing what you have to say about the others in the series! Thanks!

  5. Thanks for the mention. I've read two of these now and adore them. What an amazing review you've written!

  6. Love this (and not just because you put up with answering all my questions). I like Catherine a lot as well, although my heart belongs to Jane because she is so comfortable in her own skin and is the kind of lady I'd like to be.

    You pretty much nailed everything great about this series (although I'm way behind you, waiting to begin Book 3). One my my favourite parts is almost how she sneaks in the queer subtext (which I'm convinced is the big reason why everyone compares her stuff to the Aubrey/Martin series by O'Brian, because he sneaks it in too). So through the whole first book I was sitting there going 'wait, is she alluding to...? Ahhh she is!' and then I got all giddy thinking about the people going in for a straight up dragon fantasy who would maybe usually avoid GLBTQ literature getting this book.

  7. And that one above was me.

  8. I read the first two and then sort of stalled. I need to get back around to reading the rest of them because I own them all.

  9. I loved the first book, liked the second and a few others, but was quite disappointed in the last one.

    The social change aspects I quite enjoyed, but I felt that the last one in particular just didn't work as a story. I'll still read the next book though, because everyone deserves a second chance, and I really did enjoy the first few.

  10. I hadn't thought about comparing the two purely in terms of time period, but that does go a way towards explaining why I would marginally prefer any of the Temeraire books--even the last one I read, which I didn't like as well--to Tooth and Claw; I prefer Regency to Victorian (and late 18th-century to both).

    And I have to agree with you and the other commenters about Lawrence and Temeraire sitting around chatting--it is often the best part.

  11. Great view and awesome + one is about where I'd rate this on my dragon scale too! Really looking forward to reading Tooth and Claw later this year (it's one of the women of fantasy book club reads) to see how it rates.

    Also. How the heck did I not realise until reading this post there are more things to read in the Earthsea world than just the quartet? I am such a donut. The Other Wind has now been added to my wishlist and thanks for the tip!

  12. Sounds great, I've never heard of this series or the author, I may stick it on my summer reading pile

  13. I'm not much on dragons, but a friend of my son loves them, so I'm going to tell him about this book.

  14. Great review, Ana! I had this on my TBR pile, but I'm not sure it's there any more--I might have gotten rid of it in an attempt to make room for moar books. =/ I hope it is still there, though!

  15. I can't believe I had never even heard of this. I had a real fascination with dragons as a child and my mom tells me that for some time I believed they really existed :D

  16. I'm glad you're enjoying these so much! I liked the first book a LOT, and then was disappointed in the second and third, and started enjoying them again thereafter. But the first one is still way my favorite -- it's sweet.

  17. Awesome plus one? Sign me up!

  18. There are SIX books in this series??? I thought there were three T_T I'll definitely be reading this one! I actually have it on my shelf right next to me and if I wasn't in the middle of five other books, I'd totally start it now :p

  19. "Awesome plus one" sounds like something I shouldn't delay on! Starring your review to remember when I go to the store...!

  20. omg, it's been YEARS since I last read a Temeraire book. I think I stopped somewhere around book three? (Yeah, going by my review dates it was book three.) I have a lot of catching up to do!

    Also I love your analysis of the book. You picked up on a lot of things I hadn't thought about, especially in the queer subtext area. Yay learning new things!

  21. I think I love your analysis of the book better than I liked the book itself (my thoughts here) but I didn't give Novik enough credit for capturing the history when I read it the first time.

    I haven't read books 4 - 6 yet, but I'll be more attentive to the subtleties when I do.

  22. I was a big fan of the earliest books in the series, particularly the ones where Novik stuck really closely to the actual history. As she moved to using the history as a framework (as in the last book) it worked less well for me. I think part of my reason for wanting to love Tongues of Serpents so much was because it was set in Colonial Australia so I had such high desire for an awesome book, and it just wasn't as good, so I think I fel the disappointment even more than I may have if the book had been set elsewhere.

    I love the dialogue between Temeraire and the various people around him, including Laurence, although in the first book I did find the constant use of the endearment Dearest to be a bit too much, I did find the introduction of Iskierka and her fellow dragons to be a breath of fresh air.

    I will of course be reading the next book in the series because I just can't let a series go once I have started it. Hopefully it will work a bit better for me than Tongues of Serpents.

    As an aside, I just started a short story by Novik in the Zombies vs Unicorns short story collection. I haven't read much of the story so far, but what I have read of it was very, very funny.

  23. I don't get why I'm usually put out by dragon books, especially since I can only remember being disappointed once and my favorite fantasy series (Songs of Ice and Fire) have them.

    Your review and the above mention to the Aubrey/Martin series convinced me to give these ones a try.

  24. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  25. Marg, the story by Novik in the Zombies Vs Unicorn collection is my favorite!

  26. I had no idea this book was also published under the title "Temeraire" - I try to include that info in my reviews but it's hard to keep up!

    I really enjoyed this story, but I definitely read it as something of a stand-alone; I haven't had any interest in reading the rest of the series.

    Here's my review.

  27. Finally got around to reading this, and I wish I had done so earlier. Thank you so much for bringing this title to my attention.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.