Temeraire (or His Majesty’s Dragon in the US) is the first book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and was published in 2006. The novel is set during the Napoleonic Wars and focusses on British Royal Navy Captain Will Laurence. The central premise is how Laurence’s life is changed forever when a newly-hatched dragon, captured from the French during a naval battle, imprints himself on him.
When I began the story I was reminded of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, as the heart of this novel is the depth of the strong relationship that grows between Laurence and his dragon, who he names Temeraire. However, despite that similarity, Novik’s work is distinctive with its well-researched historical details. The opening section, with its comprehensive description of life on a navy warship, is utterly convincing.
The navy has been Laurence’s home since he was 12 but his bond with Temeraire means he must give up his old life and even his place in British society. In Novik’s world being ‘in harness’ to a dragon is problematic, as the requirements of caring for these animals makes normal life impossible. With his marriage prospects in tatters and facing the disapproval of society in general and his family in particular, Laurence’s home becomes the ‘covert’ where he and Temeraire begin their training in the Royal Aerial Corps.
The Corps pits their dragons against the superior numbers of the French aviators, opening up a third aerial battleground in addition to those being fought on land and at sea. The scenes of perilous aerial combat as they defend Britain’s skies are one of the real highlights of the book, leaving the reader on the edge of their seats, especially during the thrilling conclusion to the story.
On the ground, the story moves at a slower pace. Much of the drama in the novel comes from Laurence being an outsider in the Royal Aerial Corps. Even Temeraire’s name is taken from a famous class of ships built for the French navy, rather than the more classic Latin-inspired naming conventions of the Corps. In contrast to the Navy, the members of the Corps are often born into their life in harness and spurn many of society’s accepted norms. Laurence often struggles to adjust to their informality and his new-found freedoms. In turn, Laurence also challenges some of the conventions of the Corps, establishing a level of Navy discipline in his new dragon crew that stands them in good stead for the challenges they later face.
Although the novel is told entirely from Laurence’s perspective, the character of Temeraire is equally important. Fiercely loyal and intelligent, Temeraire is also intensely curious. His first loyalty is to Laurence as his aviator and how the bond between them develops is well-written and believable. The other characters in the story, both human and dragon, generally only provide a supporting cast as a backdrop to Laurence’s and Temeraire’s relationship.
Novik’s research and world building throughout are first class and the Napoleonic Wars provides a refreshing backdrop and a welcome change from the traditional medieval fantasy settings of so many novels. This alternate history fantasy story is an assured and convincing piece of writing and I enjoyed immersing myself in Novik’s richly detailed world.