Review: His Majesty's Dragon
Dragons are cool again.
I can’t remember the last time I loved a character quite as much as I love Naomi Novik’s dragon Temeraire. There’s a long laundry list of shortcomings native to the fantasy genre; I see, upon reading my books, certain failures recur. Women tend to be unlikeable and bossy (and intermittently weepy), while men tend to be buffoonish and prone to extreme bouts of denial.
The best fantasy books step away from these shortcomings. They also tend to steer clear of predictable storylines – farm boy finds a sword, goes to fight a Dark Lord and saves the world, being the most infamous of offenders. Sure, sometimes it can work – Robert Jordan cemented his legacy with his Wheel of Time series relying on precisely that, and even The Lord of the Rings can be boiled down to little more (give or take a sword or ring.)
With Temeraire, on the other hand – one of the two leading heroes of His Majesty’s Dragon – I see a wondrous and refreshing change in the norm. Temeraire is nearly effeminate in his affection, a welcome reprieve from the salty and disaffected men of late, and is curious about the world even as he offers startling insights into behavior and the importance of interpersonal relationships. At one point, when Laurence (who I’ll get to in a moment) offers to introduce Temeraire to his mother, Temeraire’s response is charming, and well represents his disposition.
“Oh, a mother, that is special, is it not?” Temeraire says in response. Yes, indeed – mothers are very special. He knows it and acknowledges it – somehow, the simplicity of his observation lends it the heft of truth. Temeraire never comes across as saccharine – he only comes across as good.
Laurence, who I have only just mentioned, is worth the affection of both his dragon – Temeraire – and the readers. He too is a wondrous hero, prone to self-doubt (but also capable of extreme courage) and often hilarious in his own dry manner. I was never frustrated with Laurence; his struggles felt organic and inevitable, as though I knew on some level that if I were in his shoes I would no doubt grapple with something similar. He is loyal, brave, kind and committed to his duty and his friends – he is everything I think young men ought to aspire to, and that was refreshing to read.
Novik is a brilliant author. She has uncovered something in her books – both Uprooted, which was fabulous, and now the Temeraire series. Her women are loveable, gutsy, unflappable, yet human – she does not rely on making them boss around sheepish men prone to stammering and stuttering. Instead, she has confidence in her women. She sets them side by side with the best characters she can muster – Laurence and Temeraire – and lets them do what they do. The result is delightful. I won’t spoil names or how the women “come into play,” but suffice it to say I felt it added a great deal to the story, and I am eager to read book two, Throne of Jade.
The characters are the most important part of any story, but even great character can’t save a bad narrative. Fortunately for us, the story of His Majesty’s Dragon is a true adventure – an alternate history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragon riders taking to the sky over the naval fleets of England and the Emperor. I confess that, when I first heard the premise for His Majesty’s Dragon, I was put off. It felt gimmicky, like a writing prompt with too much talent behind it to die a noble death.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, and am delighted to say so. His Majesty’s Dragon and the war within in are both a triumph; Novik’s background in history and love for the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian shine through on these pages. There are echoes of Horatio Hornblower amidst these wondrous pages; Novik’s battles are vivid, her logistics blistering and relentlessly sensible, adhering to the rules of her conjured infrastructure every step of the way.
I was sad to finish His Majesty’s Dragon, which is always a testament to a great book. It’s a strange sort of melancholy; coming to the end of a beloved story, one every reader has felt in regards to many books. The Lord of the Rings, The Red Rising Trilogy, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Redwall, It, the list goes on and on. I eagerly add His Majesty’s Dragon, Book 1 of the Temeraire Saga to this list. I cannot wait to read Throne of Jade, and will be first in line to read what this master author puts out next.
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-A & R, Intercoastals