Last December, I ended up checking out Uprooted by Naomi Novik which had an adult fairy tale vibe (I think TyburnBlossom shared a link to it on Facebook?). Curious to see what else she had written, I was surprised to see she had a nine book series about dragons during the Napoleonic Wars. Alternate historical fiction fantasy definitely was not what I was expecting to find in her back catalog, but when I needed a break from the large non fiction tomb I am reading (I am trying to get back to having more varied reading habits again instead of just devouring lots fantasy and romance series in one go), I decided to give the first one a shot. It was so much fun! I mean obviously if I love the concept of daemons from Philip Pullman, I am going to love a partnership between dragons and handlers!
After a skirmish with a French ship, the crew of the Reliant, an English ship commanded by Captain Will Laurence, finds itself in possession of a dragon egg. Fortunately, one of the crew members has at least a cursory knowledge of dragons beyond the general fear and respect of the general population, and recognizes that the egg is close to hatching. Too far away from any English outposts to reach them in time to hand over the egg to the Aerial Corps, the Navy crew prepares for one of them to become the dragonet’s handler upon hatching. In this world, dragons basically imprint upon their handlers upon hatching and must be given a name and harnessed before being fed for the imprinting to take. As far as the general public knows, dragons are wild beasts and it is only their relationship with their handlers that keeps dragons from going feral. Insanely jealous, being a captain in the Aerial Corps and a dragon handler is a life long commitment (dragons have long life spans) and means giving up the chance at a normal life and family. As a result, most are trained to the Corps starting at the age of 7, but given the importance of dragons in the war against France, the crew of the Reliant understand that one of them must make the sacrifice in service of their country. While they drew straws, once the egg hatches, the dragonet has a mind of its own, and chooses Captain Laurence.
The first part of the novel involves Laurence and his dragon interacting and getting to know each other with only the crewmember’s books and vague memories as a guide for training and dragon development. While accepting of his duty, Laurence is initially distant and regretful about the things he has lost, but eventually starts to develop a bond with Temeraire who is much more intelligent than Laurence expected. Once ashore, Laurence makes contact with a dragon expert who identifies Temeraire as a Chinese Imperial, and then a Corps member which leads to his eventual joining of the Aerial Corps and training in Scotland.
Once Laurence arrives at the training grounds where he and Temeraire are assigned to a formation, and interact with many more breeds of dragons, from the small courier breeds, which include the dragons Volly and Levitas, to the large acid dropping Longwings up to the giants of the formations, the Regal Coppers. Having not been raised in the more casual atmosphere of the Corps, and being used to the more rigid Navy structures, Laurence takes some time to adjust to the community, and at first is only able to build a relationship with one other aviator. Temeraire is a large dragon and the only one of his breed in Britain, making him a valuable resource to the Corps. Naturally, there is some resentment about a random Navy captain being paired with such a unique dragon when there are many more Corps members than eggs and dragons. Laurence also quickly discovers that what the general populace knows about dragons is very different from the reality. As the newcomers without the Corps background, Laurence and Temeraire have already picked up some habits that seem like oddities to the other dragons and captains, but some of their ideas end up expanding further within the formation while Laurence also grows more open to different life styles and mindsets.
The final part of the novel revolves around the war which involves a few famous historic battles with some twists. Even with dragons, Napoleon shows a knack for innovative strategies. My favorite parts were definitely the training camp but if you want descriptive air battles, Novik definitely delivers. While engaging and well thought out, I didn’t enjoy the battles as much as the rest of the novel because it involved the dragons fighting and getting injured as well … apparently even fake animals tug at my sentiments too much.
I had fun reading this one, and liked the different dragon personalities introduced which range a wide spectrum from old and wise to hyper childlike couriers that aim to please. Though Laurence is the protagonist and generally presented as steadfast, reliable and good, Novik allows him to make missteps and misjudgments. Definitely looking forward to the rest of the series, and seeing Temeraire develop and grow.