02 November, 2006

Temeraire, by Naomi Novik. Book review

Edition reviewed, Voyager (HarperCollins), 2006, ISBN 0-00-721909-1

Temeraire is a historical fantasy, with the premise that flying dragons were used as an aerial strike force during the Napoleonic Wars. All the main characters are fictional.

Will Laurence, captain of a Royal Navy ship, captures a French frigate and finds that it is carrying a dragon’s egg that is just about to hatch. A dragon has to be harnessed immediately after hatching, or it will turn feral and be useless for military service. The person who harnesses the dragon will be its handler for life, as dragons are reluctant to accept a change of handler once the initial bond has been formed, and will have to join the Aerial Corps as an aviator. Aviators are held in honour, since dragons are a key weapon, but they live apart from the rest of society and are not considered respectable. So Will Laurence is initially horrified when the newly hatched dragon spurns the man chosen to be its handler and takes a fancy to him instead. His strong sense of duty compels him to harness the baby dragon and give it a name - Temeraire - even though this means he has to give up his beloved ship, his family’s approval and his prospective wife. Fortunately, Temeraire proves to be more than adequate compensation. The excitement of training in aerial combat and finding their place among the other dragons and aviators proves a rewarding and fascinating experience for them both. And finally they are called upon in a desperate attempt to foil an airborne invasion, where Temeraire’s extraordinary powers are revealed for this first time.

Temeraire is a rattling good yarn with a fair amount of action and some very appealing characters. Indeed, almost all the main characters are remarkably nice people; I can only think of one really unsympathetic character (an aviator who neglects his dragon). Although the aviators are initially suspicious of Laurence, as an outsider entering their closed society, they mostly accept him and get on very well together with almost no petty infighting or backbiting. Perhaps this is due to the beneficial influence of the dragons, who are universally kind, courteous and well-mannered. One wonders why the dragons aren’t running the world, as they’d probably make a better job of it than the humans. Temeraire in particular is a very attractive character, intelligent, affectionate, willing, considerate, eager to please and utterly without guile. No wonder Laurence gets so fond of him. His first word, minutes after hatching is “Why...?”, and he retains this curiosity about the world throughout the novel. I find this appealing in itself, and it also provides an excellent world-building device, as Temeraire has to learn everything about the world and Laurence has to learn to adapt to the strange society of the aviators and the techniques of dragon combat. The reader therefore painlessly learns along with them as they explore their new environment.

The plot has many separate strands: Laurence and Temeraire have to get to know one another; Laurence has to adapt to his new life and social position; they both have to learn about aerial combat; there is a minor espionage sub-plot; a splendid illustration of an abusive relationship; a mystery over Temeraire’s breed and why his egg was aboard the French frigate in the first place; the military build-up to the climactic battle scene; and a tangential romantic encounter for Laurence. This makes the book feel very much like the first in a series, as there is clearly huge scope for further exploration.

There are some nice flashes of humour, mostly of the understated variety - for example, the scene where Laurence finds himself delicately explaining about whores to Temeraire, or the scene in which dragons turn out to be a more appreciative audience for music than London high society. And the scholarly Appendix on the different breeds of dragon, written in the style of an 18th-century paper to the Royal Society, is great.

I found the historical setting distracting and annoying, a problem I often have with historical fantasy (more on this in another post). I can’t suspend my disbelief sufficiently to accept that dragons fought at the Battle of the Nile or that Nelson survived Trafalgar, and so every time a historical event or person was mentioned it detracted from the story. This was further compounded by the repeated references to the aerial invasion force setting off from Cherbourg and requiring an easterly wind to carry it to Dover. Sorry, but the last time I looked at a map Cherbourg was a long way west of Dover. An easterly wind might be handy for invading America from Cherbourg, but for invading Britain a southerly would be more useful and would take you to the Isle of Wight. An invasion force arriving at Dover on an easterly might have started from Calais or Dunker or Ostend, but not from Cherbourg. Once I decided to read Temeraire as pure fantasy, set in an invented world that just happens to share some names with ours, these annoyances disappeared and I could get on with enjoying the story.

One difficulty I had was in fitting the social structure of the novel into the world as described. Longwings are the most important strike dragon, since they can spit poison. They can only be handled by women. Now, this implies to me that every battle since the time of Henry VII (when the Longwing breed was first developed, according to the Appendix) would have had at least one female war hero. For example, Longwings (and presumably also their female captains) are said to have played an important role in defeating the Armada. Is it really credible that the presence of female aviators would have stayed such a secret for 300 years that Laurence had not even suspected their existence until he joined the Aerial Corps? And surely the presence of women in a key military role would have had some effect on the evolution of the role women expected to play in the rest of society? Yet the social norms outside the Aerial Corps are those of Jane Austen’s world, with women who appear to have little career choice other than finding a husband. I also found it puzzling that the dragons, who are clearly at least as intelligent as the human characters and enormously stronger, routinely obey humans. Why do they take orders from people? Why do they let humans dictate their breeding? Perhaps this will be picked up on in later books in the series, as Temeraire shows attractive signs of independent thought.

Many thanks to Marg, Nessili and Joy Calderwood, whose enthusiastic reviews convinced me to give Temeraire a try!

Has anyone else read it?

33 comments:

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Great review as always Carla. No, I haven't read it, but a friend was saying how good it was the other day.
I do wonder (and not having read it I can't say) whether it is similar in some ways to the Anne McCaffrey Dragon Riders or Pern series. All the bonding with the dragon after its birth detail, sounds very familiar territory.

Constance said...

Nice through review, Carla. I've read all three books. I got impatient with the next two, but that might just be me. They are all nice. Nice worldbuilding, nice story, nice characters... nice, nice, nice. I think you nailed it. There is a formula in place and the books put it through the paces.

I enjoyed the books when I read them, but I doubt I'll buy book four with more of the same. I'll get it from the library when I want a no investment, pleasant read.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - if you have a look at Joy Calderwood's review (link in the original post), she comments on the relation of Temeraire to the Pern series. I haven't read them myself, though I gather that Pratchett spoofed some of them in The Colour of Magic.

Constance - hello, and thanks for dropping by. That's an interesting point. Marg said something similar in her review of book 2, where she commented that it seemed to back away from difficult topics, such as slavery. Maybe we're all seeing the same thing, and the books aim to be nice and pleasant rather than challenging. It will be interesting to see if the series gets more inclined to push the boundaries now that it has three books with solid sales and an established fan base, or whether it stays with familiar territory.

Bernita said...

Haven't read it - but I will have to now.
Thank you, Carla.

Carla said...

Bernita - the US title is His Majesty's Dragon, and it may have the same title in Canada - so look for it under that if you draw a blacnk with Temeraire. If you read it, let us know what you think!

Constance said...

The kiss of death for me was that I didn't really CARE about any of the characters other than Lawrence and Temeraire. While I like the depictions of the relationship between the two, they seem entrenched in their own little world. Everyone else is a stock character or red shirt. It's a shame, because I really like the books. Maybe that is why I'm being so hard on them.

Carla said...

I had a sort of feeling that the book was just a little bit short of what it could have been, Constance. Does that make any sense? It was a good fun read, and I'll read the next one, I just felt it could have been that bit sharper or could have wound the tension up a notch or two. As well as Laurence and Temeraire, the character that caught my attention the most was Levitas, the neglected dragon. I thought his relationship with Rankin was a very neat illustration of an abusive relationship, evoking in me a mixture of feelings of pity for poor Levitas combined with a certain amount of irritation with him for putting up with it. I think that's what's likely to stay with me longest, long after I've forgotten the battle scenes.

Constance said...

Exactly, Carla. The whole Levitas thing is what perplexed me also. I think the intent was to show that dragons were like people in their emotions and dependencies, but I don't want a wussy dragon. I wanted Levitas to look at Temeraire and say "hey, what I'm getting here stinks. I want changes."

I'll read the next one too, but if the plot is Problem, Travel, Travel, Travel, A Death, Problem Solved, I'm going to be irritated.

I think I'm so hard on Novik because it's a neat idea, and there is such potential, then it falls a little short.

Anonymous said...

Wussy dragons? Ouch.

I have it on my To Buy list but I'm not pushing it higher up now. One day, when I have a few Euros to spare ....

Carla said...

Actually, the Levitas thing worked really well for me. I didn't think Levitas was wussy, exactly. I saw him as emotionally dependent on his captain, who was something of a bastard. Presumably the emotional dependence comes out of whatever it is that makes a dragon bond with a human when it hatches. It reminded me of a the way a child wants approval from its parents and is bewildered and unhappy when that isn't forthcoming. Sure, you can argue that Levitas ought to grow up and get over it, but dragons don't seem to be like children in that they don't seem capable of becoming emotionally independent of their handlers. (I have to say I don't understand this dragon-human relationship very well at all - why are intelligent creatures, as dragons obviously are, dependent on humans? I hope this might get explored in later books, because I certainly think it needs exploring). So Levitas is stuck with needing Rankin's approval, with no way of getting that approval (because Rankin is a bastard) and no way of getting away from it either. I felt very sorry for him, same as I'd feel sorry for a child with a neglectful parent. Which just goes to show how people vary in what they like in a book! So don't let it put you off, Gabriele, especially if you can borrow the book from a friend or from a library or if you happen to find a copy cheaply in a used book store.

Constance said...

Well, I don't want to give away anything in upcoming books, but dragons are most definately not totally dependent on humans. I hope that question gets answered too, because it is a nagging problem in my mind. codependency is never pretty.

It's sorta like if my horse could talk, I'd hope he'd tell me if he was being treated properly or not. *g*

Gabriele, the books are very much worth reading. We are just perplexed by some things in them. Give the series a try, the Napoleonic era setting is very vell done.

Carla said...

Oh, thanks, Constance, that's good to hear. This whole dragon-human bond thing puzzles me more the more I think about it.

Joy Calderwood said...

Constance, did you think BLACK POWDER WAR was nice? I think the war required a great deal of comic relief from the baby dragon to balance the darkness. In the untitled fourth book, sample chapters show a terrible, dark danger, so much so that I had to figure out a solution beforehand, in order to face reading the book. (Which I will, as soon as it comes out.)

Anonymous said...

Lol, I didn't say I won't read the books, I only said the review didn't make me push them higher on my To Buy list - which is limited by money. *sniff* :)

Constance said...

Black Powder War was still full of 'nice'. *g* IMHO. Dragons are still treated as tools and a means to an end. I am waiting to see that addressed.

Tharkay was the most interesting character in BPW besides the baby dragon. It was an interesting book because Temeraire seems to be maturing and changing while Laurance stays the same.

Carla said...

Joy and Constance - right, I am definitely going to read books 2 and 3! This is getting intriguing.

Gabriele - I'm relieved I didn't put more pressure on your budget this time :-)

Constance said...

Carla, they are worth the read. Novik does some excellent worldbuilding. They also have teh feel of that Napoleonic era, if you like htat sort of thing. A little late era for me. After 900 AD, it's all downhill. *g*

Carla said...

Oh, a fellow soul! I tend to get a bit lost much after the tenth century too. Any particular era, episode or character you're specially interested in, Constance?

Oddly, the feel of the Napoleonic era was one of the things that didn't work that well for me. I feel a bit guilty about that because I can tell the author has worked on it really hard. I don't think it's fond memories of Hornblower or Sharpe :-). I just can't get past the fact that Napoleon and Nelson didn't have dragons (somebody at the time would surely have mentioned them) and so I can only read it as if it's a parallel universe.

Anonymous said...

Lol, I'm more into the Aulden Times, too, though for me it's more the 14th century which is the upper line.

So, it's exactly the Napolenonic World, only with dragons? I think I'd prefer a more alternate take, like G.G. Kay, Sara Douglass or Jacqueline Carey. But I've read several reviews over at LJ that dislike the fact Carey bases her stories on some Dark Age/Mediaevalish Europe at all while for me playing with known elements adds to the fun. It's in the eyes of the beholder, lol.

Carla said...

Yes, it's the Napoleonic world only with dragons, even to the extent that the author comments in her author's note that she was very careful not to use out-of-period words. Which is one of the things I have trouble with, because it seems to me that if dragons had been domesticated and used as major components of warfare since Roman times, the world wouldn't have been the same by Napoleonic times. However, I'm probably thinking about it too much.

Constance said...

*rereads posts* Boy am I showing my dyslexia today. *grimaces*

Carla- I have a thing for Byzantine, Persian, Roman,and Greek eras mainly. 'specially soldiers and engineers. Coincidentally enough, they are usually my main characters. Imaging that. *g* I'm not as well versed as you guys in Greco-Roman head piking.But I have tons of books I'm reading. Slowly.

Napoleonic era doesn't interest me, maybe that is part of the problem with the Novik books for me. I would have expected more of a culture around the dragons, if they had been partnered with man that long.

Anonymous said...

Who knows, with dragons the Romans may even have escaped the Teutoburg desaster. :)

Constance said...

With dragons the Romans would have owned all of Europe, Asia, and Africa... Maybe even Iceland. :)

Carla said...

Yes, exactly, and what if Arminius or Vercingetorix or Boudica had also domesticated dragons, or captured a Roman dragon? And what would dragons have done in all those Roman civil wars? Or if Mithridates of Pontus had bought a Chinese dragon along the Silk Road? Or if the Romans had dragons and nobody else did, how come the Western Roman Empire fell apart and was taken over by assorted Franks, Visigoths, Vandals, Attila, etc? Or wouldn't Justinian have successfully conquered it all back in 550-ish? That gets me, there are surely all sorts of ways that 2000 years of dragons woud have affected European history and culture and it wouldn't have ended up at the Napoleonic world with dragons bolted on.

Constance - if you're interested in Roman engineers, have you read Robert Harris's Pompeii, the one with an aqueduct engineer as the hero?

Constance said...

Carla... um, I have a copy of Pompeii...it's in my TBR pile, but I must confess, the pile is huge and I'm not getting through it very quickly. I'm only 1/2 way through Memnon *gives guilty look over shoulder for Scott*

I think another friend recommended Pompeii because it had an engineer in it but he never told me it was an aquaduct engineer! Now I have to move it up in my pile. Thanks! :)

Carla said...

Not only is the hero an aqueduct engineer, but the engineering and the aqueduct is central to the plot, and not only because of the most significant burst water main in history. Definitely worth bumping it up to the top of your pile if you're at all interested in Roman engineering. I reviewed Pompeii here in March, here's the link.

Anonymous said...

Yes, exactly, and what if Arminius or Vercingetorix or Boudica had also domesticated dragons, or captured a Roman dragon?

Hey, stop giving me plotbunnies. ;)

Carla said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Carla said...

Plotdragons in this case? :-) (Well, Scott Oden says he gets plotraptors).

Constance said...

I wish I had plot raptors. Or dragons. *glumly* I only have plotGerbils®. They run and run and run on the wheel and mostly get nowhere...

Thanks for the push, Carla. I'll bump Pompeii up the ladder. After reading your review, I think I started reading Pompeii once, it sounds way familiar.

Carla said...

Well, raptors spend all day sitting on fence posts doing not very much, judging from the buzzards I see in Scotland. Or the sparrowhawk in our garden whizzes in for about 0.1 nanoseconds once in a blue moon. And since dragons are reptiles they probably sleep for months on end if given half a chance, like snakes do. I think on the whole the gerbils might be more fun, Constance :-)

Kalen Hughes said...

Boudica had also domesticated dragons, or captured a Roman dragon?

Now that's a book I wana read!

Carla said...

I think you'll have to write it yourself, Kalen!