Sunday, January 23, 2011

Review - His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

Short review: If C.S. Forester had imagined the Napoleonic Wars with dragons, this would have been the result.

Mix guns and dragons
Plus naval analogies
Get a fun story

Full review: His Majesty's Dragon is the first book in the Tremeraire series, now up to six books, and projected to be at least nine. The books are alternate history mixed with fantasy that could best be summed up as Horatio Hornblower if C.S. Forester had added dragons to the mix. The result is a version of the Napoleonic Wars that is imaginative and packed with exciting action.

The Hornblower stand-in is Captain Will Laurence, who starts out as the Captain of a frigate in the respectable Royal Navy. He and his crew seize a French ship carrying an unhatched dragon egg, and circumstance forces Laurence to take on the burden of "harnessing" the newborn dragon and assuming the responsibility to becoming its permanent companion. He named the dragon Tremeraire, his Navy career ends, and he becomes part of the much less reputable Dragon Corps.

Fully half of the book is basically worldbuilding, as Novik first describes a world in which dragons are real and are used as weapons of war, and then describes the unique branch of service that has grown up around their use, and Laurence's induction and training in the ways of that service. In the hands of a less skilled writer this portion of the book could have seriously dragged, and at times the pace does become just a bit too slow, but Novik spices things up with a variety of small conflicts ranging from interservice rivalries between the Navy and Aviator Corps, Lawrence's discomfort at adjusting to a wholly new and unfamiliar way of life, and Lawrence's conflicts with both his own family and other officers. The development of the relationship between Lawrence and Tremeraire also adds depth to this section of the story.

Eventually we get to see dragons in combat as a variety of missteps by the British high command thrust Tremeraire and a collection of other inexperienced dragons into desperate action to defend England against Napoleon's forces. Novik portrays the speed and drama of swooping dragons crewed by bomb-throwers and musketmen in such vivid detail that one almost feels to rush of wind in your face. During the battle, the true nature of Tremeraire (who, of course, is not just your usual run-of-the-mill dragon) is revealed, which clearly serves as grist for the rest of the book series.

Novik hints at a wider world in which political power has been shifted by the existence of dragons as weapons of war. China and Japan, with their powerful dragons are no longer backwaters subject to being pushed around by European powers. Instead, they are nations to be reckoned with and which even the British Empire must deal with kid gloves. While this does not directly impact the story in this book, it does cast the entire European conflict in a different light. The existence of dragons and their demands also force some social changes as well - certain kinds of dragons only accept female companions, requiring the hidebound British military to accept female officers, at least in the Aviator Corps. In addition, since the dragons can reject a proffered companion, the influence of family connections in securing a dragon is diminished to nothingness, making the Corps much more egalitarian than the society around it. One suspects that this will be a source of friction in later books.

While Novik's imagined alternate reality is generally quite well-realized, there are a few points that seem to be less than well-thought out. The Aviator Corps is a loose, informal organization, reflecting the nature of the Royal Air Force (and the U.S. Air Force as well), which was much more informal in its early days than the other services. But a large portion of that loosey-goosey nature was the result of aviation being a new technology that was both feeling its way towards military usefulness and attracted only those officers with something of a maverick personality to begin with. In the Tremeraire series, dragons are not a new element, having been around for as long as men can remember. It also seems as though the use of dragons in warfare is also not a new development. As a result, there seems to be no real reason why the Dragon Corps remains such an informal organization other than it makes for a nice parallel with the air forces of the first half of the Twentieth century. Further, it seems as though the British Navy has been generally unaffected by its sister service, for example it retains the system of prize shares being divided among the crew, a system that does not seem to extend to the Aviator Corps. It seems odd that the system would crop up in one service but not the other.

Finally, while Napoleon's invasion plans are quite interesting, and make for a dramatic scene placing the dragons front and center in the fight, upon reflection they don't seem to make much sense. Effectively, Napoleon's strategy seems to be akin to intentionally stranding thousands of men with little hope of resupply. I suppose that one could assume that Napoleon intended his men to forage for food, but it seems like they would have been hard pressed for ammunition. They also seem like they would have been desperately short of cavalry and artillery. Napoleon was famous for his attention to logistics and artillery support. It seems odd to posit a plan from him that seems to throw both out the window. In short, despite the desperate language surrounding the fight to keep Napoleon's troops out of England, it seems as though if they did succeed, it would have been the equivalent of throwing a beached whale on the shore.

However, in the end, these are relatively minor quibbles. Some concessions have to be made in these areas in order for the alternate reality being presented to be relatable to real history, and the "problems" I have noted are fairly minor (and probably idiosyncratic to my tastes), they are really not that important. What is important is that Novik has given us a well-realized, exciting adventure that is both fun to read, and gives more than enough foreshadowing of likely future conflicts to whet the reader's appetite. The most important task the first novel of a series has is to make the reader want to immediately pick up the next book, and in that regard, His Majesty's Dragon is a rousing success.

Subsequent book in the series: Throne of Jade.

2006 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired by Elizabeth Bear
2008 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

2007 Hugo Award Nominees
2007 Locus Award Nominees

Naomi Novik     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. I love this book, and it's sequels. I hooked my dad on it, too, and a bunch of guys on his construction site :P

  2. I really enjoyed this series too. I'll be posting reviews of the remaining books in the series (up to and including Tongues of Serpents) over the next few days.

  3. I love Naomi Novik! Great review! Old follower stopping by to say hi! Drop by if you get a chance-