Sunday, July 6, 2008
I've been looking forward to reading HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON by Naomi Novik (blog) for a long time. As a longtime reader of fantasy, I am familiar with the concept of a dragon bonding to his or her rider. Two of the most famous novels of this microgenre are, of course, Dragonriders of Pern and Eragon. I remember reading Dragonriders and being so completely blown away by the ending that I just had to go back and reread it right away. HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON didn't quite reach that height of enjoyment, but it came very close.
Captain Will Laurence of the HMS Reliant has just captured a French vessel. He is rather irked at the enemy captain for putting up what he thought of as an unnecessarily stiff resistance . . . until he sees what is in the hold of the enemy ship. It's a dragon's egg, carefully packed and hardening fast. And a hardening shell means it's about to hatch.
Laurence cannot risk the dragon ending up feral. It must bond to someone. The ship's officers draw straws to determine who is going to bond to the creature. They make their pick, but the dragon has another idea. He picks Laurence. He asks Laurence for a name and Laurence--completely unprepared--names it Temeraire after "a noble dreadnought which he had seen launched, many years before . . ."
It turns out to be an unusual name for a dragon, since they generally have grandiose Roman names such as Maximus, Levitas and even Excidium. There are many other differences between Navy and aviator life, several of which I have a bit of a quibble.
As an Air Force veteran, I have a bit of experience in being a member of the most casual of the armed forces, but I cannot imagine it having been so casual that neglect of even the appearance of my jet (I was an aircraft mechanic) would have been tolerated. It had to be wiped down after every flight. A significant storyline depends on one of Laurence's fellow officers neglecting his dragon to the extent that the poor dragon had sores under his harness. Such neglect always reflects poorly upon the commanding officer, but in this case, the commander's reputation didn't appear to suffer because of the junior officer's neglect.
Other than this and one or two other quibbles not worth mentioning, this novel is superb. Temeraire was an engaging character. Laurence was almost motherly to Temeraire and even called him "My dear." The major relationship explored here is between Laurence and Temeraire. I loved the surprises toward the end. Novik prepared the reader so well for the biggest surprise that I could not think of it as a deus ex machina, since it made such perfect sense. My favorite characters are probably predictable: Jane (Excidium's rider) and her daughter "Roland", along with Maximus's rider, the rather overweight Berkley.
Things I wish had been explored? I wish I could have seen a feral dragon. I'd like to know why dragons bond at all with humans. The thing that took me most aback--that dragons can talk right out of the shell--was nicely explained. But I wanted more.
I suppose that's what the future volumes are for!