Not His Majesty’s Dragon, Actually

Book cover: Temeraire by Naomi NovikI am a week late joining the Temeraire party, having failed to keep up reading it in Dutch. English copy procured, I am now aboard as our gorgeous Imperial fledgling and his well-bred Naval handler fall in love and get sent to school to learn a few much-needed lessons.

Having now grappled with the English text, I understand why I struggled with the Dutch – the English too is slightly stilted, borrowing the odd archaic phrasing to lend a bit of period colour. Back in my mother tongue, I can slither through this like an eel and have enough brain left to reflect on what’s actually going on.

Consequently, I’m enjoying the read a lot more – although Will may require a good shake soon (in fact, this is a theme of Wills in recent reading, given my comments about Will Reticulata-Iris in Between Two Thorns) – because OHMAHGERD Temeraire is adorable.

We meet the ever-so-honourable Will Laurence at sea, being disappointed in a French captain whose ship he has just defeated. Before we can get too sucked into bitchy opportunities for judging vanquished foes, we are distracted by the Frenchman’s cargo: a dragon egg. That is about to hatch.

This sounds like the sort of rapid pot boiling that I still use District 13 as my favourite example of: in 20 minutes there’s a kidnapping, a drug war, a dirty bomb pointed at Paris, and our hero has nothing – not even a shirt – to save the day, just his crazy parkour skills. GO. Wait, sorry, distracted now. Okay, back in the room. On the ship. DRAGONS.

Before the dragon hatches, we have time to understand the role of dragons in the Napoleonic wars: the French have air superiority, and British dragon-riders are maverick social outsiders (because let’s face it, nobody wants to watch a dragon eat). Captain Will has a problem: if a newly-hatched dragon doesn’t imprint on a handler at hatching, it turns feral and will never submit to a harness. This has bounty implications, and is bad for the war effort. So one of his well-bred officers will need to become an airman and lose all his social standing (we can see where this is going, yes/yes? YES).

But first, some world-building questions, as it turns out the newly-hatched dragon not only talks but speaks English. It’s a Chinese breed captured from a French warship en route from South America, and it speaks English. So… are dragons multilingual? Does the process of choosing a human create some sort of magic or psychic link that instantly gifts them with command of the appropriate language? Do dragons actually speak dragon, and it just sounds like whatever you prefer to hear?

Regardless – and in spite of a short straw selecting the adorable if acrophobic midshipman Carver to be the dragon’s rider – the gorgeous dragonet promptly chooses Captain Will as his favourite instead. Luckily Will’s Dad never liked him anyway, so this sudden re-assignment from Navy to Air Corps will only confirm that he’s a terrible young man who should’ve joined the Church. A terrible young man with a stunning, intelligent and incredibly charming DRAGON.

To be honest, while quite a bit happens in the following chapters – especially on the topics of all senior officers being monsters, navy vs airforce discipline, and how best to pack your boxes (I’m not even kidding) – the bit that never gets old is how totally in love the young Captain and his baby dragon fall. Temeraire is irresistible, and Will has largely succumbed even before he gets his first flight on dragonback. After that, he’s sunk. The affection between them is heart-warming: Temeraire frets about Will catching a cold; Will has bouts of guilt about not being nice enough and buys Temeraire jewellery. The bromance is strong.

In fact, I’d cheerfully keep reading just to watch the boys gaze into one another’s eyes and try to make one another happy. It’s beautiful. But there’s more to enjoy! Will is both straight-laced and thin-skinned – being well brung up and having expectations means he struggles with the looser discipline and straighter talking of the air corps; and crucially, worries far too much about social context (oh hey, Will Reticulata-Iris, looking at you again. WHAT IS IT WITH WILLIAMS?). This provided me with enormous bonus joy when it became clear that the best dragon trainers are dragons; and that not all dragons like to be ridden by men. Lady dragon riders!

Watching Will flounder along – and make terrible choices in friends (because he’s the son of an Earl, you know, and his clothes are well-pressed) – is where the desire to shake him came in. Will needs to loosen up, make some friends who actually like dragons, and get on with being in the airforce. Along the way – all being well – he may get to reform it slightly, as it’s clear that the dragons aren’t getting quite as much love as they deserve.

It’s early days. Our boys are definitely in training, and Temeraire is still growing. But so far, this little book has cheerfully stolen my heart and flown off into the sunset. While there’s a little bit of me that’s ruefully acknowledging I’ve read a lot of alt histories / fantasies of manners riffing off this period recently, it’s mostly being drowned in big cold-hearted leathery-skinned dragonish enthusiasm. MOAR PLEASE.

(The title of this week’s post reflects that the US title is His Majesty’s Dragon, which Temeraire rejects in our second week’s read: he hasn’t even met His Majesty, thank you very much, and if he’s anybody’s dragon, he’s Will’s. AWWWWWWW).


Our reactions as we read are captured on Storify (week 1 and week 2) thanks as ever to @effingrainbow.

The #Temeraire live tweet-alongs continue on Sundays at 9pm BST.