Temeraire: (not) His Majesty’s Dragon

Book cover: Temeraire by Naomi NovikI could dress this up ten ways from Sunday, but why bother: Temeraire is the Napoleonic War with added dragons, and if that doesn’t float your boat then I don’t know what to say. I fell head over heels with this historical bromance cum fantasy of manners, because it is glorious. And it has dragons.

We meet Will Laurence busy disapproving of a defeated French captain after a hard-fought sea battle. It’s a lovely bit of scene-setting, with an easy familiarity (I loved Master and Commander, okay?) to get you started and we learn a lot very quickly: Will is well-born, clever, competent and very good at looking down his nose at people he disapproves of. He’s a good and caring commander – he’s so disapproving because he can’t understand why his opponent would have forced a crew in such poor shape to commit to a fight in the first place. Battered from hard storms, they stood no chance of winning – only dying.

The discovery of a dragon egg in the hold explains everything, and Will’s attitude changes immediately. It’s the grace notes that lend Temeraire some of its abundant charm: Will acknowledges the hopeless bravery of his defeated foe by restoring his sword to him.

Let’s be honest, though: Will’s a bit much. He is entirely devoted to his duty; largely unforgiving of those who don’t live up to his standards; and utterly admirable in every way. He keeps his compassion under close wraps – he hopes that the very young midshipman with the terrible fear of heights won’t draw the short straw for trying to tame the dragon, but when he does, Will doesn’t intervene. The boy will have to get over his fear and learn to fly.

Except that he won’t. No man – or woman – makes a dragon’s choices for it. When the egg hatches far from land, the beautiful black hatchling explores the ship with avid curiosity and promptly fixes on its Captain. Will must abandon his loyalty to the Navy and adopt this new charge, or lose a rare and valuable asset for the fight against Napoleon. Captain Laurence resigns himself to joining the Aerial Corps.

Will is our vector for the story: we learn of the Corps through his prejudices. They are poorly regarded and stand-offish. An aviator and his dragon can’t live in civilized lands. Aviators have a terrible reputation – with a dragon to protect them, there’s no telling them what to do, and they need to live somewhere wild enough for their dragons to hunt. Will is going to have to give up his dreams of a certain young lady back home, and his fondness for the theatre. There is a certain element of hand to forehead woe about the proceedings.

Delightfully, this angst lasts a sparse handful of pages, because there’s absolutely no resisting the force of nature that is Temeraire. The young dragon is beautiful and his curiosity knows no bounds. He doesn’t conform to any expectations of dragonkind – he likes to swim, and eat fish – and his appetite for learning almost matches his appetite for food. It would take a much worse man than Will Laurence to resist his charm (and we meet such a man later on, in the shape of the despicable Rankin); it would also alienate this reader entirely. Thankfully, the two fall head over heels in love and are inseparable before they ever reach shore.

The Aerial Corps are as disgusted at having to adopt a Naval officer as that Naval officer is to join the Air Service (who don’t even press their uniforms, or know how to pack properly). Sustained by the joy of the central relationship, the narrative has license to explore the politics and prejudices of Britain’s forces, often to comic effect as it’s hard to take some of Will’s lofty disapproval seriously. England would fall without its dragons, but it will be a cold day in hell before the Navy respect the undisciplined louts who ride them.

Inundated with dark hints about what to expect, Will and Temeraire are sent north to a training covert in Scotland to learn aerial combat and give Temeraire time to reach his full growth. Will must learn to accept the ways of the aviators and find a place in their ranks. Having the cleverest – and youngest – dragon around will not suffice; he needs to find a crew who will work with him in the air and on the ground, and the pair need to learn to fly and fight in formation with the other dragons.

Some of which are ridden by women. It was a huge relief to discover that this book wasn’t going to be entirely male-dominated (mostly, but not entirely). It seems that the two biggest secrets of the Aerial Corps are that dragons can tell men what to do and some of those men are women. Shocking. Even better, some of the highest ranked captains in the defence of the Channel are women (and such women! No social conventions need apply – think Starbuck rather than Elizabeth Bennett, although I’m sure Miss Bennett would make an excellent aviator and rapidly adjust to her new circumstances).

If we understand this strange new world through Will’s sometimes wide eyes, we have Temeraire to question it. The young dragon wants to know all the things and his questions follow the logic of the outsider, which results in hilarious interchanges such as his views on politics and his concerned enquiries into whether Will needs to visit a prostitute (Temeraire knows far more about their crew’s habits than Will does). This isn’t the only source of humour, but it’s a deep vein richly tapped throughout.

As Will struggles to deal with his prejudices regards social status, gender and even nationality, he and Temeraire forge a bond that rapidly became my favourite friendship of recent years. There’s a reason an aviator takes no husband or wife: there’s no room in a person’s life for two relationships of this intensity. The unassailable loyalty burns through Will’s lingering ties to his old Service. By the time – many months later – he’s back aboard a ship, he finds his old comrades unbearable, and their attitude to Temeraire unacceptable. It’s adorable.

Better still, Temeraire isn’t half as dutiful or loyal as Captain Laurence. Will is fighting for King and Country; Temeraire is fighting for Will. It’s a lovely set-up that pays off in an epic battle (when Temeraire agrees to face almost certain death together because that is their duty – OH MY HEART) and again in the sequel, Throne of Jade.

In fact, Temeraire and his dragon pals soon have a Muskedragon pact that they’ll accept no nonsense from the Establishment; if any of them – or their aviators – is in trouble, all three will intervene and get them to safety. All for one and one for all! What can possibly go wrong?

This reader looks forward to finding out.

All in all, this is beautifully written, smartly paced and delightfully heart-warming. I was completely swept off my feet. I’ll admit I was slightly disappointed when Temeraire won the poll for next Sunday tweet-a-long read (my long-standing loyalty to Deverry, which I look forward to revisiting in due course). Now I have no regrets. Bring me the next book!



More detailed discussion (with spoilers) in the weekly read-along: Week 1 & 2, Week 3 and Week 4.