Volume 25, Number 01, Fall, 2007

His Majesty’s Dragon, Throne of Jade, and Black Powder War

By Naomi Novik

Del Rey, 2006
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
September 2007

A lot of science fiction has looked back to the fleets of the Napoleonic era for inspiration. “Horatio Hornblower in space” themes have appeared in series from classic Star Trek to David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels. In these three books, Naomi Novik expresses the same interest in a different way: her fantastic premise is not interstellar travel, but the existence of dragons, while her setting is the actual Napoleonic era. She shows us a world where dragons have fought in human wars since the First Crusade, and in the novels’ historical present are now fighting on both sides in the Napoleonic Wars. Her human hero, Captain William Laurence, and his dragon, Temeraire, serve in Great Britain’s Aerial Corps, keeping the British Empire safe from the French.

Dragons usually mark a work as fantasy, but the spirit in which Novik approaches them is often closer to science fiction. Her dragons have an internal anatomy that features huge gas sacs, lightening them enough to make their flying less implausible (if not biomechanically realistic). They can be selectively bred for traits such as size, flying speed, or the ability to breathe fire or spit acid. And Novik offers both a clear vision of their behavioral traits and an exploration of how they fit into human society.

This is an alternative history, but the historical world-building is taken somewhat lightly. The world’s overall history appears to have been changed very little by the existence of dragons; Europe still had the Crusades, the Spanish Armada, and the French Revolution, for example, with dragons fitted in for dramatic purposes—for example, Sir Francis Drake rode a dragon to set fire to the Spanish Armada. The focus is more on the small change of history, the evolution of specific customs and institutions, such as those surrounding the aviators of the Aerial Corps. Here Novik is doing some serious world-building, with elements such as the inclusion of women officers (because one breed of dragons react badly to male riders), the strong emotional bond between dragon and rider, and the fact that some dragons participate in the Aerial Corps as equals, rather than servants, of its human officers—notably Captain Laurence’s trainer, Celeritas. Novik makes Captain Laurence a naval officer who has to transfer to the Aerial Corps after his ship captures a French frigate carrying an egg on the verge of hatching, and in need of a human partner; this makes the exposition flow more smoothly by letting the reader share the viewpoint of a character who also knows little about the Aerial Corps.

Novik’s handling of the period details seems generally sound, though she has a few slips, such as having a British savant’s treatise on dragons measure their body mass in metric tons (a French innovation that the British didn’t adopt until much later) or transliterating a Chinese prince’s name in the pinyin system worked out by scholars in the 20th century. More importantly, much of her narrative has the spirit of the era. One of the key points in a subplot in the first volume, for example, is Captain Laurence’s realizing that his own perception of the moral significance of another character’s actions was in error, and that by acting on that perception he has put himself in a false position that he must correct—this is exactly the sort of plot that Jane Austen’s novels, written and set in that period, often presented.

Over the course of the novels, a larger theme comes into view: the ethics and politics of the relationship between humans and dragons. The British and other Europeans treat dragons as valuable but dangerous animals, capable of speech but not of reason or self-awareness, and needing to be kept under control. During the second volume, Captain Laurence encounters the very different customs of the Chinese Empire, where dragons, if not free, are at least legally equal to humans; and his own dragon, Temeraire, is inspired to want to see British dragons gain the same equality. The whole theme offers interesting parallels to the question of women’s rights, which was just starting to emerge in our own history in that era. For example, not long after Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a satirist responded by publishing A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, which suggested that legal rights could be given to dogs and horses just as well as to women; in Novik’s world, many scholars explicitly classify dragons as “brutes,” which would give such a work an even sharper point. Novik shows the deep bond between dragons and their captains (and the evils of its absence), but also its coexistence with the captains’ firm expectation of the dragons’ subordination—and she shows Temeraire questioning that subordination, and Captain Laurence reluctantly coming to agree with him. And Captain Laurence’s own relationships with several women of the Aerial Corps call the position and role of women into question in the same way. Readers interested in gender politics will find a fascinating subtext in these novels.

Captain Laurence is perhaps a little too ready to accept both the military role of women in the Aerial Corps, and their freedom from the ordinary expectations for the behavior of their sex. At times, he seems closer to Horatio Hornblower, a man of the twentieth century in Nelson’s navy, than to Jack Aubrey, an actual man of the eighteenth century. This perhaps brings these novels closer to fantasy, where this is an old device—it’s been remarked, for example, that Tolkien’s hobbits are Edwardian gentlemen (plus an Edwardian servant) venturing into the realm of legends and sagas. The Temeraire series is largely light entertainment. But it’s superior light entertainment, with some real substance behind it, and some genuinely moving scenes. I haven’t seen a better fantastic or science fictional treatment of the era it’s set in.

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