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This fantastic debut sets up a bold alternate version of British history in which the Napoleonic War is fought not only on land and by sea, but also in the air by each country’s corp of intelligent fighting dragons and their handlers.
Novik’s world-building is second to none. While comparisons to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series are inevitable, the Temeraire series is really a different kettle of fish. Handlers and their dragons do share a deep kinship with each other, but there the similarities end. Novik develops dragons into several different breeds, each with its own unique size, coloring, and ability. Fire-breathing dragons are quite rare, for example, but several breeds spit acid or poison. Different nations breed for different qualities: the English, for example, breed for speed and agility, but often at the expense of brains. The Chinese dragons are considered the pinnacle of the species in nearly every way, but little specific knowledge of them exists outside the East until Temeraire, a very rare and special Chinese dragonlet, hatches aboard the ship of Captain William Laurence, who finds himself no longer a Navy man when the dragon becomes attached to him.
Since Laurence knows nothing about dragons or aviation whatsoever, Novik spares the reader a lot of dry expository writing by making Laurence and Temeraire’s training the central focus of the novel. The reader learns as they learn, and while a few of the subplots seem to exist purely to educate the reader on the habits and customs of dragons and their riders, somehow all of this setup is too much fun to feel like setup.
To me, while the battle scenes and draconic details were fun, much of the interest lay in watching Laurence’s character develop over the course of the novel. He goes from a stiff-upper-lip ship’s captain with little thought for more than his duty to England and a definite reluctance to be leg-shackled to a giant lizard, to a man unexpectedly in love with his new life and completely devoted to his reptilian companion.
BUT ALSO THE BATTLE SCENES ARE FUN. What’s more exciting than people sword-fighting on dragonback while the dragons slash at each other and spit acid farther than the length of a football field? Nothing, that’s what. And the dragons, with their single-mindedness and their lack of understanding of human law and custom (but why can’t I just eat those sheep over there? No one else is eating them right now), are delightful and developed characters all on their own, making the reader wish he or she had one to hang out with and fly around on. (I’ll put my prepositions wherever I like, thanks so much.)
Beyond the fact that this is just 100% escapist fun, I think the book’s greatest strength is the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. They have different mindsets, different values; they aren’t even the same species, yet they value each other above the world and everything in it. Their bond speaks to the fundamental human desire to encounter someone or something Other and find love and understanding, to have a perfectly suited companion, to never worry that you will be lonely, that you will lack acceptance, that you will fail to measure up. It’s the ultimate fantasy, and Novik carries it off perfectly.
My only complaint is that I didn’t read this 6 years ago when it first came out! Now I’ve got my work cut out for me catching up with the series.