I’m pretty behind on Bingo, so trying to catch up before it ends! Some quick reviews of two entries in a series I’ve been reading this year, both on audiobook: Temeraire (AKA His Majesty’s Dragon) and Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik. Temeraire fits the History/Schmistory square, since it’s set in an alternate history, and Throne of Jade satisfies the requirements for Travel.
This was the series Novik was known for before she delved into folklore fantasy with Uprooted and Spinning Silver. They’re difficult to compare, as they are stylistically very different. Objectively, I prefer her newer fare. But these books are also delightful in their own way.
The story centers around Captain William Lawrence of His Majesty’s (British) navy during an alternate history during the Napoleonic Wars, but with a new addition to their warfare: airpower–AKA, dragons. Every empire in this world has access to dragons in some way, so as well as naval and ground battles between the British forces and Napoleon’s, there are also dragon battles. (They are pretty cool.)
Lawrence’s ship captures a French one, taking their cargo as booty. Except their cargo includes a magnificent dragon egg of a species wholly unfamiliar to them. When the dragon hatches, it is imperative that it immediately bonds with the man who will fly it, otherwise it will go feral and be a huge loss for England’s air power. Lawrence steps up to the task and bonds with the dragon, whom he names Temeraire. But Temeraire is highly intelligent and curious, beyond Lawrence’s expectations. Even as Lawrence frets to join the air corps–who are far removed from the civilized gentleman’s society he is accustomed to–he bonds with Temeraire and the dragon with him.
The second book includes a complication: a foreign power who originally owned Temeraire’s egg wants him back, and England dares not risk ruining what little diplomacy they have with this power. Slight spoilers that one would get anyway from reading the back of the book: the power in question is China, and the book mostly centers around a trip to that empire that Lawrence and Temeraire are forced to undergo.
The most delightful part of this series is undoubtedly the relationship between Lawrence and Temeraire. Lawrence is thoughtful and well-intentioned, even though rather proud and at times even overly honorable. Temeraire is fiercely intelligent and even more fiercely loyal, and the two complement each other very well. The air battles are actually quite well done and interesting to read. In fact, the style itself is what makes the book so remarkable. The prose is like reading like a Jane Austen novel, and much of the content is as well: Lawrence is concerned with etiquette and social standing, and must navigate personal politics as well as more overt politics (especially in the second book).
Overall, I enjoyed the first book more than the second. I found the second a little more problematic in its treatment of China, but also more boring. I missed many of the characters from the first book, who make only brief appearances here. It seems like the other books will also feature travels to different areas, which rather tempers my desire to read more. I appreciate that Novik wanted to explore more of a world with dragons, but it can’t quite get away from the overt imperialism that must be inherent in any story about a British officer during this period. Lawrence is supposed to be more enlightened than many–there is a very on-the-nose discussion of slavery in Book 2 that, while I sympathize with, didn’t contribute much to the plot. But it still feels a little voyeuristic.
On average, I would rate them 3.5 stars. I think #1 is a solid 4, but #2 is only a 3. They’re good, but not great. I haven’t enjoyed them as much as recent historical fantasies like Lions of Al-Rassan or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
As a final note, I have very much enjoyed this series on audiobook. It is read by Simon Vance, who does an excellent job with various voices, but especially conveying the Austen-esque prose. If you are to read it, I highly recommend the audio version (which is high praise from me, since I usually prefer reading to listening!).