His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik
Published by Del Rey
384 pages, 2006
And So It Begins...
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
His Majesty's Dragon is a remarkable and very good book -- especially given that it is Naomi Novik's first novel. It avoids the usual dreaded expository lump, almost a given in setting up a new world -- and presents a story with warmth, delivered with charm and the assumption that readers are intelligent.
It's not easy to charm me with dragons. I did not grow up reading fantasy, with dragons or not, and have never found that part of the genre to my liking. I just lack the dragon-loving gene -- except when it comes to the work of Ursula K. Le Guin. As Le Guin is one of the top writers in my pantheon, you have to be pretty darn impressive to get my attention.
I'm also not well-versed in world history, and the knowledge of certain periods might help in reading this book. However, Novik is skillful in informing the reader well enough, so even if you aren't familiar with the details of various Napoleonic campaigns, for example, it won't detract from your enjoyment of her story.
His Majesty's Dragon is about war, yet there are few battle scenes in it, which for me was yet another plus. I don't read battle scenes, I don't enjoy books about war unless they focus, perhaps, on an aspect of people's lives. (Look at my review of Mary Doria Russell's A Thread of Grace if you don't think it's possible. It's a book about Italy during World War II, which is not about battles and soldiers. Not exactly.) True, His Majesty's Dragon establishes much of the training of characters who are going to fight for Britain against the enemies, but it's about relationships and life and friendship and oh so much more. Novik sketches in some amazing aerial battles, nevertheless, this is not a war book.
Will Laurence is captain of the Reliant , which has just captured a French ship with a strange cargo. The prize is a dragon's egg, and it's close to hatching. This isn't good, because the Reliant is far from land and dragons are the concern of the Aerial Corps, not the Navy. No one is prepared to take on the training, care and overseeing of a dragon, to become a member of the corps; Will signed on for a Navy career (much to the dismay of his well-bred family, who wanted and expected him to have a proper career in the church). So the crew draws lots to sacrifice someone to the task; but when the dragon hatches, it is drawn to Will and his life changes forever.
The charm in the story begins with that first meeting of dragon and man. It holds such an elegance and sweetness. Dragons are born speaking which is a convenient and clever fiction here, because it obviates the need to teach the dragon how to speak. Sure: it can be implied and skipped over but I think this idea works better. Later, the reader learns that dragons -- at least this dragon -- can speak more than one language. When Will and Temeraire meet, it's not precisely a cute meet, but it's warm and it worked very well. And while Will isn't exactly thrilled with this outcome and the burden it implies -- there goes his career -- but he faces his responsibility with a measure of honor and a notable lack of whining.
The story of the bonding between Will and the dragon he names Temeraire is the main part of His Majesty's Dragon and it's wonderful. Novik maintains an innocent voice for the growing beast, and it never falters. Will and the dragon face some nastiness early on: Navy men are not considered good enough to be part of the elite Aerial corps, but essentially once a dragon imprints on a master, they are there to stay.
Some dragons in this tale will only work with human women, which adds a dimension I really appreciated. I hadn't truly realized until the idea was introduced, that His Majesty's Dragon wasn't an all-male story. And the use Novik makes of myth works well: dragons feature in the legends of many cultures. We have English and French creatures, but also we are reminded of the long, ancient history of China, and that comes into play.
Are there weaknesses in this book? A few. Will is a bit too perfect. It's a fantasy so the hero gets to be fabulous, but I believe that protagonists work better if they come close to being realistic. Some of the long descriptions, which are necessary to give the reader the images of the battles, the dragons' harnessing and such didn't work for me, though maybe I lack the visual ability needed or maybe the author wasn't clear or was overly-detailed. None of this made much of a dent in my enjoyment of the book. It was absorbing and enchanting. I'm quite pleased to know that I won't have to wait for the second in the series, which was released on the heels of this first installment. | May 2006
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.