This month’s Feature Article will be examining Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, and this review may be the easiest I have written to date because I can find no faults with Novik’s novel. If you are a fantasy fan, you will want to read this book, especially since I assume most fantasy fans have a soft spot for dragons, and Temeraire is much more than your typical talking dragon – Smaug has nothing on this guy, by the way. Among his many abilities, Temeraire reads, learns calculus, loves music, and is a compassionate companion with a humble yet powerful personality that earns the respect of humans and dragons alike. So to summarize right here at the beginning of the article, I highly recommend reading His Majesty’s Dragon in order to meet one of the most engaging dragons ever penned.
Now Novik’s work could be recommended on the strength of Temeraire’s character alone, but she managed to create a strong cast of supporting characters, not least of which is Captain Laurence. By adding Laurence and an extremely interesting story that takes place in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, she has created a near perfect novel that is well written, tight in scope and shows great depth of its two main characters. The twist that adds dragons to the fighting forces of the British and French is brilliant, and the added dimension of overlaying aerial combat forces on top of the navel forces moves the Siege of Britain roughly a hundred and thirty years earlier. We simply substitute heavy dragons for bombers, and smaller more agile dragons for fighter and support planes. But of course, our aerial forces are not mere machines, but intelligent living beings with engaging personalities; even the “simple” Volly is an endearing dragon that you will fall in love with immediately. This personalization of the combat vehicles adds an incredible dimension to the human element of the war, and it is something I haven’t seen done quite so well since the days of Farscape and Moya.
In addition to giving us a near perfect character in Temeraire, Novik pairs him with Laurence, the gentleman captain in the Royal Navy whose life gets turned upside down after he puts Temeraire to harness. What I found most interesting with Laurence wasn’t that he accepted this life-changing event with a high degree of honor and a great commitment to duty, it was that he never allowed it to completely change the man he was. He adapts and bends as he trades the gentlemanly Royal Navy for the coarser and less respected Aerial Corps, but he remains a gentleman despite his altered circumstances. He never becomes overbearing in an attempt to impose his views on his new comrades in the Corps, nor does he allow them to fundamentally change who he is. He is patient and fair, always leading by example, and he allows time to slowly adjust the attitudes of both himself and his new comrades.
In many ways, Laurence becomes the epitome of a gentleman, despite being forced to give up all gentlemanly pursuits and associations. I think one of my favorite scenes is his initial struggle to simply address Captain Harcourt properly as he fights to drop the “Miss” from her title; however, the shock of seeing her in “breeches” does slowly fade, and the friendship and respect that evolves is a testament to his open mindedness and tolerance. By the time Captain Roland enters the picture, he has shed all of his prejudices and misconceptions regarding the Aerial Corps, yet he retains his dignity, honor and a commitment to duty that never seems rigid or misplaced. By the end of His Majesty’s Dragon, Laurence has elevated himself to become Temeraire’s equal, both in comport and temperament, and they become a perfect match, exemplifying everything we come to expect from people of “high character”.
I haven’t read any of the sequels to His Majesty’s Dragon, but I wonder how they can compare, given that much of the beauty of the first novel is watching Temeraire and Laurence grow as a team to become something greater than the sum of their parts. I suspect the follow-ups are more action packed, and are not without their plot twists and turns, but I’m pretty sure the initial introduction of Temeraire and Laurence cannot be replicated. Because of this, I am quite willing to let His Majesty’s Dragon stand on its own as a solid work requiring no sequel. Sure, I have the desire for the story continue so I can become enmeshed in new adventures of Temeraire and Laurence, but His Majesty’s Dragon is more than strong enough to stand on its own, and I can recommend His Majesty’s Dragon without reservation. If you are a fan of fantasy, this almost becomes a must read in my opinion.