Sunday, July 1, 2007

Book Review: His Majesty's Dragon

A book to make you say awwwwwwwww.

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik. Temeraire, book 1. Ballantine Books (New York): 2006. 356 pages. $7.50. ISBN: 0-345-48128-3.

It is the most entertaining book I have read in two years. Period. (Two years ago, incidentally, I was reading Bone.) Though I may have been too hard on some books in the past, in this review of His Majesty's Dragon I will have to struggle not to gush.

Other reviewers have already described this, Novik's debut novel, as a cross between Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern and the high seas adventure novels of Patrick O'Brien (indeed, Novik describes herself as an O'Brien fan in the brief bio in the book's back). Hybrid though it is, His Majesty's Dragon infuses a fair amount of originality into the realm of dragon stories in general and also introduces readers to one of the most engaging characters in fantasy literature, the series's title character, the dragon Temeraire.

Technically speaking, this is a work of alternate history. In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Will Laurence is an ideal British naval captain. However, his life changes dramatically after he captures a French frigate carrying a single dragon's egg. In Novik's alternate world, dragons are an important part of Europe's militaries, offering vital air support to ground troops and ships alike, but to render the dragons useful to the military, someone must, upon the dragon's hatching from its egg, put the dragon in a harness and become its lifelong companion, constantly at its beck and call. When the dragon begins to hatch on Laurence's ship, he has no choice but to order his officers to try to harness it. The dragon, however, takes a liking to Laurence himself; as a result, Laurence must leave the Navy behind and join Britain's disreputable and shadowy Aviator Corps. As troops and dragons amass on the shores of France for a full-scale invasion of the British Isles, Laurence, his dragon Temeraire, and their green crew must train like mad to become a respectable fighting force and help the hopelessly outnumbered British aviators repel the onslaught.

Novik clearly knows what she's doing. She does not allow her dragons to fly at random over naval or land battles while individual riders on their backs engage each other with pistols and cutlasses. Her dragons fly in logical military formations, and they carry not individual riders but entire crews, including riflemen, bombardiers, lookouts, and a few officers. Novik sets up reasonable limitations on draconic flying abilities and forces her dragons to maneuver within those limits. To make the battles more harrowing, she also weakens her dragons considerably: rather than having virtually impervious scales, they have relatively soft flesh vulnerable to teeth, claws, and bullets. Most of the dragons have no natural projectile weapons; acid-spitting and fire-breathing are rarities, and dragons with such abilities occupy tactically vital positions.

Novik has given a good deal of thought to dragon anatomy, as evidenced by the amusing excerpts from Sir Edward Howe's Observations on the Order Draconia in Europe, with Notes on the Oriental Breeds, which appears in the novel's appendix. The dragons come in a great variety of breeds, each with different abilities, and different names such as Winchester, Yellow Reaper, Grey Widowmaker, and Flamme-de-Gloire, probably inspired somewhat by the color-coded dragons of Dungeons & Dragons.

Although the novel contains three good action sequences, its real focus is on the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. This is one of those weirdly beautiful friendships of the sort fantasy seems especially suited to invoking. Like many similar relationships, it has elements suggestive of romance: Laurence calls Temeraire "my dear" and occasionally buys him jewelry, they often pet each other and frequently sleep together, and Temeraire gets jealous when Laurence looks at other dragons. Simultaneously corny and strangely moving, their relationship really can, if you'll pardon the cliché, make the reader laugh and cry. Other fantasists sometimes commit the error of trying to depict such relationships by giving the characters a psychic connection or some kind of mystical bond, which I have always found to be a mere distraction. Novik apparently realizes that such things do not make for real friendship: though Laurence putting Temeraire in harness smacks of a magical rite, they have no mysterious union; they are not psychic, but speak to each other in English, and Novik makes clear that they could, if they wished, leave each other. Their relationship is beautiful and believable partly because it is uncluttered with unnecessary fantasy conceits.

But this relationship works largely because of Temeraire himself. Although the narrative follows Laurence and he is a grand character in his own right, Temeraire is one of those rare figures who seems to reach out of the page and shake the reader by the hand, so that you might feel, if you read this book, that you have actually met the dragon. This is not a compliment I pay lightly: C. S. Lewis once suggested that the number of such characters in all of literature was only three, namely Socrates from Plato's Dialogues, Dr. Johnson from Boswell's Life of Johnson, and Jesus from the Gospels. Some would readily add Lewis's own Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, and I propose that we now add Temeraire to the list.

"Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," Jesus tells us in Matthew 18.3. This statement has been variously interpreted as different readers have tried to figure out exactly what aspect of children it is that Christ wants us to imitate. Kate Elderkin in a 1930 article on jointed dolls, which appeared in the American Journal of Archaeology (34.4:472-475), suggests without much conviction that a jointed doll in a Christian tomb in Rome may represent a literal attempt to fulfill Christ's command to child-likeness. A view which, I am told, prevailed after the Enlightenment was that children are trusting and do not question. Another view, probably more modern, holds that children were marginal members of first century society, so Christ is commanding his followers to show solidarity with the least of these.

Another view, which seems to be perennially popular whether or not it is correct, is that children have a sense of wonder. To the child, the world is always fresh and new and there is always something exciting to learn. Such a child can revel in God's creation and therefore revel in the Creator. Whether or not this is exactly what Christ meant, I think few Christians would deny that perennial wonder is a healthy outlook. In his fine volume, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card argues that speculative fiction has a unique ability to imbue such child-like wonder, for this so-called "escapist" literature gives the reader new eyes with which to view the world, and I can think of no novel better suited to granting such new eyes than His Majesty's Dragon. Temeraire delights in everything, loves everything, and wants to learn about everything. When he is hiking with Laurence, he is constantly gazing at the clouds or peering at the rocks. He makes Laurence read to him at night and absorbs everything he reads. In the dragon's presence, Laurence, normally taciturn, finds himself laughing and playing like a young boy. So infectious is Temeraire's personality that the reader might find himself doing the same thing. Though I could hardly bear to put this novel down, I also struggled to read it because so many passages made me want to jump up and run around with glee.

Though religion is utterly absent from the novel (the Church of England is mentioned only when we learn that Laurence's father wished his son had been a clergyman rather than a military officer), the book manages to get across a few good lessons. In particular, Laurence has some difficulty teaching Temeraire the concept of duty. The dragon wishes merely for an interesting and exciting life; the ideas of standing for a cause or fighting for king and country are alien to him: he is in the war not because he loves England but because he loves to fight. Early in their relationship, Laurence jokingly asks him, "Shall I turn pirate king and go raiding in the West Indies, and fill a covert with gold from Spanish merchant ships for you?" Temeraire replies seriously, "That sounds exciting" (p. 94). However, at the end of the novel, when all is lost and they are facing down an impossibly huge horde of French dragons, Temeraire makes this statement: "And we must still try, or we would be leaving our friends to fight without us...I think this is what you have meant by duty all along; I do understand, at least this much of it" (p. 329). The point is well and simply made.

This is not to say the book is flawless. Novik's prose is frequently awkward (imagine my misuse of commas and semicolons stretched out over a whole novel), and though her characters are all interesting and well constructed, they are so numerous and have so little physical description that I was often lost in a sea of names. The Aviator Corps, aloof from the rest of society, has some peculiar attributes reminiscent of Plato's Republic, which I found hard to believe could exist in early nineteenth-century England, especially women commanding dragons and fighting in combat, in spite of the lame excuse for this that Novik offers. Laurence ends up in an immoral relationship with one of these female captains, an event that proves utterly gratuitous as well as incongruous with Laurence's generally upright and often uptight character. Making it worse, Novik depicts women in the military as the Aviator Corps's best-kept secret; everyone outside this special branch of the military is apparently unaware of it. I am willing to stretch so far as to believe Britain would allow women to pilot dragons if particular breeds would only accept female handlers, as Novik indicates, and I am also willing believe this would lead to a general degeneration of morals, as Novik depicts, for it's well known what soldiers and women do together when in close proximity. However, I can't believe all this would be secret; rather, I think it would be a constant source of scandal and gossip. Nonetheless, the novel's impressive achievements make these flaws easier to overlook.

I leave you now with one of my favorite passages, which, admittedly silly in isolation, is in context one of the most moving in the novel:

Laurence needed little encouragement; moments later he was striding to the field. As he drew near, he could make out Temeraire's bulk by the light of the half-moon: the dragon was curled in small upon himself and nearly motionless, only stroking his gold chain between his foreclaws. "Temeraire," he called, coming through the gate, and the proud head lifted at once.

"Laurence?" he said; the uncertainty in his voice was painful to hear.

"Yes, I am here," Laurence said, crossing swiftly to him, almost running at the end. Making a soft crooning noise deep in his throat, Temeraire curled both forelegs and wings around him and nuzzled him carefully; Laurence stroked the sleek nose.

"He said you did not like dragons, and that you wanted to be back on your ship," Temeraire said, very low. "He said you only flew with me out of duty."
Laurence leaned forward and laid his cheek against the soft, warm hide. "I am so very sorry," he said. "they persuaded me it was in your best interests to stay away and let him try; but I should have seen what kind of a fellow he was."
"If you would like to have your ship back," Temeraire said, "I will let someone else ride me. Not him, because he says things that are not true; but I will not make you stay."

Laurence stood motionless for a moment, his hands still on Temeraire's head, with the dragon's warm breath curling around him. "No, my dear," he said at last, softly, knowing it was only the truth. "I would rather have you than any ship in the Navy."

Okay, now everybody say it: Awwwwwwwww!

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for His Majesty's Dragon:

Myth Level: High (dragons, war, transcendental friendship)

Quality: Medium-High (some awkward prose but supreme characters and fun action)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (some really good stuff and some really bad stuff intermingled)
blog comments powered by Disqus