His Majesty’s Dragon
It is the year 1805. The Napoleonic Wars are waging, and under the command of Captain Will Laurence, HMS Reliant has just captured a French frigate carrying a dragon egg. Laurence’s life is changed forever when the dragon hatches and immediately bonds with him. Since dragons are necessary to England’s defence, and since they cannot easily be parted from their captains, Laurence is compelled to leave the Navy and join the Aerial Corps with his dragon, Temeraire.
This book is great fun. “Dragons in Napoleonic England” sounds like a concept fit only for parody, but Novik makes it utterly believable through a strict attention to detail. Indeed, a large part of the book’s fun is discovering the world of the Aerial Corps along with Laurence; the scenes of him training with Temeraire are as engaging as later scenes of action, because it’s simply fascinating to see how Novik blends dragons into her alternate history.
The heart of the novel, though, is not the world-building or the action, but the bond between Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence himself is not the most complex protagonist ever written, but he’s eminently likeable; I warmed to him on page 11, when he tells his officers that every man will do his duty for England and attempt to harness the dragon, even though none of them want to leave the Navy. Furthermore, it’s deeply refreshing to find a historical novel whose hero is not brandishing modern opinions: when Laurence is somewhat shocked to find women in the Aerial Corps, I actually liked him the more for it. Temeraire, by contrast, is insatiably curious and free-spirited, and he is lovable without ever seeming quite human. The loyalty and affection that grows between them is deeply affecting.
On a moral level, there’s not a lot to say. Various characters grapple with the issues of loyalty and responsibility as they apply to dragons and their captains; nobody comes to a final conclusion, but it’s wonderful to have characters actually think about such things. Laurence ends up sleeping with another officer in the Corps because, um, it’s not clear, really. It’s not a major part of the story, though. Content-wise, the book is very restrained; “adult” subjects are referred to but never described in detail.