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Temeraire (His Majesty's Dragon) by Naomi NovikUK edition4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAbout as marvelous a debut as I’ve seen in fantasy or anywhere else, Temeraire (I much prefer the UK title to the more generic-sounding US one) heralded the arrival of a formidable talent. Word-of-mouth spread through fandom ranks like bird flu. Del Rey’s triple-threat launch — with the first three volumes of the series released over three consecutive months in spring 2006 — only added to the momentum.

Novik’s book arrived from an agency, unheralded and unsolicited, on Betsy Mitchell’s desk at Del Rey. Skeptically, Mitchell read the manuscript and was so captivated she not only made an offer for an entire series, but pushed Novik to complete the two following books so that Del Rey could try a back-to-back release strategy that had worked well for Ballantine romance writer Mariah Stewart. What gave this journey such a happy ending is that Novik isn’t just another epic-fantasy pretender trading in the same old shopworn clichés. Though her stories are Eurocentric, the Temeraire series nonetheless recontextualized popular fantasy and high adventure tropes to come up with a story not quite like any other on the racks at the time, with breathlesss entertainment value. With an easy-to-grasp high-concept hook — it’s Patrick O'Brien with dragons! — Temeraire attracted a wide fan following and turned its author into a bonafide fantasy star.

Set at the onset of the 19th century, Temeraire follows the friendship that grows into a bond of brotherhood between British naval captain Will Laurence and the dragon he names Temeraire. In Novik’s alternate history, sentient dragons are commonplace, and her method of weaving this overworked fantasy lizard into a real world context is meticulously thought out and entirely believable. She has them speak, but not to cartoonish effect. Believably, she explains how they learn (by hearing speech while still in the egg), as well as how 19th century science has yet been unable to fathom exactly the mechanisms of dragon intelligence.

Laurence has captured Temeraire’s egg after boarding a French ship. A gift intended — we later learn — for Napoleon himself, the hatchling promptly bonds with Laurence, but the prospect is not welcome at first. Temeraire would be enlisted in the Aerial Corps, and, in classic tradition, the rivalry between different branches of the armed forces is strong. Furthermore, as Temeraire’s captain, Laurence will have to leave his naval career, already strongly disapproved of by his family, and enter the ranks of the Corps himself, whose members have nothing like a normal life. No prospects of marriage or family or high status. And it’s unlikely the Corps will take kindly to an outsider not raised in their ranks being in charge of such a magnificent dragon as Temeraire. For Temeraire is a rare Chinese breed, a Celestial, and there are only a handful known to exist in the entire world.

Novik knows that for the story to work, we have to believe the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire wholeheartedly. And we do. Their growing friendship is depicted sincerely, and Novik doesn’t depict any of her dragons as Disney-ish talking animals. They are another intelligent species the human race must share the planet with in her world, even if human beings do have something of a leg up on the civilization aspect of things. Novik is careful to show how humans and dragons exist in a form of partnership, while those humans who do not commonly interact with the creatures naturally have some fears and prejudices to overcome. These would be themes Novik would explore the fuller ramifications of in subsequent volumes.

Temeraire is a wonderful creation, full of the exuberance of his youth, eager to learn about his world, while Laurence instills in him concepts like duty and responsibility. The bond that builds between him and Laurence makes for one of fantasy’s most heartfelt friendships since Frodo and Sam or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Neither is sidekick to the other. What Laurence and Temeraire endure, whether terrifying aerial battles with the French over the roiling Channel, or quiet evenings where Laurence sits and reads to the dragon under the waning sun (and I knew I was into a truly special novel when that happened), they do as friends and equals. 

Novik isn't above indulging in a bit of pathos. A subplot about a callous captain and his sad, neglected dragon is pure button mashing (not that it doesn’t work, mind you, but that’s what it is). And there are moments in the book’s second half where the crisp pacing of the first gives way to dawdling. But if that’s the worst I can find to point out in Temeraire, compared to the laundry list of shortcomings one typically expects in first novels, then it’s hardly worth bringing up. I should also mention Novik’s singular stroke of genius: the Aerial Corps itself, with its use of entire crews, including gunners and boarders, manning the dragons on an elaborate network of harnesses and clamps. Not only does this give the novel a strong cast of supporting players — just as you’d get in any story about a ship and its crew — but it leads to knockout action scenes that can truly be called unique in the genre. If fantasy novels can be most commonly criticized for a failure of originality, it’s a failing Novik has escaped with all the skill of Houdini. She also avoids the easy temptation to have endless appearances by historical figures like Nelson and Napoleon. To do so would have made the book gimmicky. As it is, we keep the action focused on the characters, and see the story through their eyes. 

Temeraire — or His Majesty's Dragon, whichever you prefer — brings to fantasy not only a gifted new writer, but two unforgettable heroes who will make the hearts of a whole generation of readers take wing. 

Followed by Throne of Jade.