After reading and loving Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, I decided to check out her other series. While the first Temeraire novel does not have the level of clever dialogue and characterization of Uprooted, nonetheless, His Majesty’s Dragon is a decent adventure/historical fiction/fantasy. The basic premise is that a British naval captain Will Laurence captures a French ship that has on board a dragon egg about to hatch. In a nod to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series, the dragon must bond with a human almost immediately after it hatches, and this particular dragon bonds with Laurence. They must then go train as a part of the Aerial Corps to protect England from Napoleon.
There is not a lot of battle in this book, since most of it is introducing the characters and the world of the dragon-based combat training and war. I’m ok with that since the battle we do get to see towards the end just was not that exciting. There are too many generalities about the combatants who are not a part of the main plot or cast to make this section especially engaging. Calling a random dragon by its breed is not enough to make me interested in what the dragon does since I have so little information about the breeds to know or care about it. The military strategizing, information gathering, and suspense is far more tension building and interesting.
There are some appealing characters, dragon and human, including some women. Ladies are allowed to captain dragons, and there is one species that for some reason will only bond with women. Thankfully, the ladies and the men are pretty much equal in terms of how they are treated and how they work together, so there is not much attention to romantic distraction. That is my pet peeve: bringing in a love story when you promise me fantasy and adventure. There are some hints of love relationships, but nothing that takes over from the dragons and adventure. Laurence himself is a little stiff (he reminds me a bit of the Norrington character from Pirates of the Caribbean series) but that works in this novel, since he has to grow as a character in order to fit in to his new world. It’s also a bonus because he doesn’t get overly involved in the politics or the romance, both of which are dangers in this kind of story.
The different varieties of dragon is interesting, although the individual personalities of some of Temeraire’s colleagues are more interesting, including Lily, Maximus, and Levitas. Listening to them with or without their human partners is entertaining. For example, none of the other dragons have ever heard of taking a bath in a lake, as Temeraire is used to doing, so when he suggests they all go together, the rest are eager to try. The ensuing scene is like a bunch of kids at the pool. Levitas and Lily are a little unsure about getting in, and once Maximus jumps in (a dragon-sized cannonball from the sound of it), he and Temeraire start a water fight. Temeraire likes to have Laurence read to him, and he has ideas about the human theories and about society that are pretty clearly meant to be “outsider perspective” commentary on humanity. Thankfully (again) the philosophizing discussion is kept to a minimum, and does not get in the way of the story.
I’m hopeful that the next in the series is like this first volume with the focus off of the battles, and more on the characters and the strategizing. Some clear hints about at least the initial conflict of volume 2 are that Temeraire is probably one of the rarest Chinese breeds and that he was intended as a gift to Napoleon. Both of these facts are made known towards the end of the story, so I’m guessing that the next one picks up with these threads. I’d like to see Temeraire with some of his own breed, and even better if he and Laurence somehow get to China. That would make Temeraire’s commentary on humanity more interesting if he had more than one culture to compare.