Temeraire: Naomi Novik

★★★★

Temeraire: Book I

You know, it’s amazing how many different ways you can say, ‘Hornblower with dragons’. You can say it rather dismissively, as I did before actually reading the book, or you can say it with great excitement and added exclamation marks, as I did on finishing it. This was one of those cases where I’d made assumptions about a book beforehand – only to enjoy it much, much more than I’d expected to.

Novik’s series of novels are set in a world exactly like our own in the early 19th century – the days of Nelson, Napoleon and Trafalgar – save for one significant difference. Here, naval warfare is backed up by the Aerial Corps, a sort of proto-Royal Air Force, made up of dragons and their human ‘aviators’. (I was going to make some elaborate pun about Spitfires, but decided to spare you.) In this world, dragons were first domesticated by the Romans and have played a key role in history ever since – different countries supplying different breeds with different capabilities. Novik throws in some superbly nonchalant examples of how their presence has subtly coloured the world we know. For example, dragons appear in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, roasting the damned souls in Hell; and Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish armada with the assistance of a dragon named Conflagratia. I pick out these examples to show you that Novik conceives dragons as an intrinsic part of her world, taken for granted – and she’s obviously having a great time re-imagining how history might have played out.

Captain Will Laurence is a naval officer who can hardly believe his luck when a French frigate, taken as a prize, yields up that most valuable of treasure: an unhatched dragon egg. But his pleasure doesn’t last long: it transpires that the egg is close to hatching and this means that Laurence must give up one of his men. The dragon can only be tamed – and thus made useful – immediately after hatching. The person who then harnesses and names it will be ever after bound to it. Such aviators devote their lives to their dragons – a permanently hungry, sharp-taloned, sixty-foot-long, fifty-ton flying creature with insatiable curiosity demands a lot of attention. Lots are drawn and one young crewmember selected… but Fate gets in the way. The newly-hatched dragonet pays no attention to the chosen boy, but instead decides to stop in front of Laurence himself and address its first words to him (oh, yes: these dragons speak). Deprived at a stroke of a future, a family, a marriage and his family’s approval, Laurence has no choice but to accept the duty offered him – naming the dragon, with a flourish of naval colour, Temeraire. As Temeraire grows stronger and larger, wolfing down the ship’s supplies and any fish that can be caught, Laurence uneasily comes to terms with this strange, fascinating creature who is so entirely devoted to him.

As Laurence and Temeraire begin their training in Scotland, as part of the Aerial Corps under the supervision of the instructor Celeritas, they must both adjust to new hierarchies and habits. Both are outsiders: Laurence’s naval background is marked with as much scorn as an aviator would face in the Navy; and Temeraire, who is so different in appearance to his fellow dragons, and considerably more intelligent than some, must settle into the order of precedence. Most striking for Laurence, in this training covert, is the presence of women: the Longwing dragons will only accept female aviators, and so he must learn to accept Captain Harcourt and Captain Roland – both brave and dedicated leaders who just happen to be women. This whole first book is thus very much an ‘in training’ novel, allowing us to learn more about this world through Laurence’s unaccustomed eyes, and introducing us to the rest of the Corps. Highlights for me were the bluff Berkley and his dragon Maximus; the excitable, rather dim dragon Volatilus; and the adorable little Levitas, who desperately wants to be loved by his indifferent, self-absorbed captain. I did find it slightly strange that dragons instinctively speak as humans do, with perfect command of a language straight off the bat, although Novik explains that this is because they pick up the language which is being spoken around them while in the shell and so I suppose it makes sense in the internal logic of this world.

Novik captures the austere, extravagantly polite manner of naval fiction like Hornblower or Master and Commander, where all the English are jolly good chaps and the French are generally gentlemen but dastardly nevertheless. The growing trust and understanding between Laurence and Temeraire is very touching (although I felt they were both slightly over-sentimental about each other) and I can’t wait to see the sort of thing they’re capable of when fully trained. I’ll definitely be seeking out the next book in the series to see how things develop, and I’m very pleased to have read this for myself at last, and to find this patriotic romp of a story. As I said: ‘Hornblower! With dragons!’ What’s not to like about that?

Buy the book

Next in this series – Throne of Jade

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