“Patrick O’Brian with dragons, and it works like a charm”, Chicago Tribune apparently wrote about Novik’s Temeraire series. That’s certainly the plan. Sometimes it comes close. Sometimes – not really. Ladies and gentlemen – I give you In His Majesty’s Service, collected edition of books 1,2 & 3 of the famous “Hornblower on a dragon” series. Books based on idea so awesome, Peter Jackson wanted to film it.
I’ve read the omnibus, but I’ll score each book individually, I judge them very differently.
Author is Polish-American, so that is nice, she’s always happy to mention that, in her Uprooted it will be central, here – not really relevant, although visible for an observant reader. She’s definitely a O’Brian/Forester lover, and an author who does solid research before writing, a reader has to appreciate that.
Fascination with history and solid research led to a creation of awesome alternative XIX-cent. Earth. More or less like ours, but with dragons. Dragons were there since forever, utilised by the Romans, tamed by the Chinese, but the history went more or less as ours. No magic, no extraterrestrials, just a race of flying, intelligent, self-aware reptiles.
Reptiles of various kinds. In Europe – size matters, biggest beasts are strategic assets of their nations, smaller – serve as couriers and support. China has more sophisticated hierarchy. There are special powers – only some subspecies breathe fire, some have even stranger abilities.
And so the saga begins with His Majesty’s Dragon. Right in the middle of a sea battle (spoilers ahead, limited to the first chapter or two), where HMS Reliant led by William Laurence’s defeats a French frigate and claims a great prize – dragon egg, soon to hatch. War with Napoleonic France rages, Aerial Corps, vital to the survival of the Great Britain is in constantly of new recruits, and when newborn dragonlet imprints on Laurence he is forced to resign his commission in the Royal Navy and join the Corps. Noble sacrifice for his country, because it’s not something a gentleman would do. They have all kinds of suspicious characters serving there, and even women. To prevent scandal, this fact isn’t widely advertised. Laurence is a son of an aristocratic family that, after his fall from grace, would love to forget he exists. His fiancée – practically forces him to break the engagement. The only thing left in his life is Temeraire.
But why is it so important for Laurence to follow his new dragon friend? Dragons, at least those living in civilized nations, form a close bond with one human. In British Aerial Corps, that human becomes a captain of a crew, with several dragons of various sizes forming larger units. In other nations… it varies, and describing all the subtle differences seems to give the author unlimited amounts of joy, so I won’t spoil that. Enough to say – the balance of power between people and dragons is, logically, one of the defining characteristics of any society in this universum. Europe is actually most similar to that of our past, other civilizations are often build around their concept of human-dragon relations. Europe… will probably need to change, these are times of abolitionist movements, and, at the end of book 3 it’s clear that dragon liberation will soon follow.
Laurence is thrown into entirely new situation, from Navy straight from O’Brian’s books to much more egalitarian Aerial Corps. He learns basics around people much younger, schooled in dragon management from childhood, and envious – Temeraire just happens to be a really big dragon, and size of your dragon matters in the Corps. Than we have air battles, deeds of courage, new friendships and a little bit of romance. A very good first instalment of what I hoped will become something like my beloved Aubrey/Maturin series. Only with dragons.
It’s a very cool book and it allowed me not to pay too much attention to some worrying signs. I’ll only mention one, because it caused me some irritation from the very beginning.
A sin I can rarely forgive. That spoils my enjoyment of an all-together excellent book. Not a mortal sin, because it seems author was aware of the risk and tried not to go too far. And to modern audience not brought up (like me) on historical fiction it might not be such a big problem. The problem of… calling it political correctness is maybe a little unfair. I’d say that Novik’s modern sensibilities led to frequent anachrochronisms. All the costumes are ok, the detailed movements of Napoleonic armies also, but what happens in many characters’ brains seems taken from the XXI century.
Gender and general equality, democracy, cultural relativity, corporal and capital punishment, traditional customs of all sorts… it’s easy to look upon history from high grounds of modern morality. Just as it will be easy, in a hundred years, to condemn us, for many offences, some of them not yet invented.
Writers like O’Brian can write interesting, strong female characters within the constraints of the XIX cent. society. Novik used her female aviators to simply invalidate history. If she had more subtlety, and took more time to explore them, it could be great. But we got a few unsatisfying sketches that strengthened my dissatisfaction.
I hate Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, in some regards a very nice movie, because of the very moving speech delivered by the main protagonist just before the siege. It’s not that I do not support his ideas, but they have no place being expressed in this particular setting. A piece of advice – modern political philosophy is not enough to fix history, if you have a go at time travel, take some technology with you. But be very careful or you’ll end up like a certain Yankee on King’s Arthur court.
Reading Novik I had similar feeling, luckily less intensive and I could still enjoy the book. But pay attention – the good guy are modern-thinking, the bad and stupid are such because they can’t reach our moral sophistication.
Heh, I’m over-sensitive in this regards, most of the reader won’t even notice.
Another thing, and that is my impression from book 2 (but from what I know about the rest of the series, it doesn’t end there), is that author is bent on proving moral superiority of almost any non-European cultures. Whole Throne of Jade is build on that and it quickly gets boring. From what I’ve read it seems like Europe evolved sort of against, or at least next to, its dragons, and the rest of the world somehow more naturally, alongside them. How did Europe’s military and economy ever reach its historical levels in a world where its enemies better utilised the most powerful resource? Beats me.
After very good book 1, Throne of Jade was a disappointment. I can enjoy writers with whose politics I disagree, but the plot itself takes a wrong turn.
What I hoped for? A series very much like Aubrey/Maturin, with recurring characters, episodic structure and slow development of some major plot lines as the Napoleonic Wars progress. And books like that could easily follow His Majesty’s Dragon.
Instead Novik took us travelling. It’s no what I personally wanted to read, but I also think it’s a mistake. There are seeds of many interesting things that could have happened in and around Great Britain, if only author wanted to explore that in a book or two.
But we have entire book dedicated to one monotonous journey, and a couple chapters of redundant action at the end. Whole novel could be removed from the series with no great loss. I’ve read it only because I hoped for something to happen, for the plot to go back to all the fascinating stuff from book 1. And it did, but I had to wait even longer, till the second half of book 3, Black Powder War. Here we leave the sea to observe the impact of dragons on the land warfare of early XIX century. Very interesting, very good, very short. It might continue in later instalments, but I’m hesitant to check. I might go back to Temeraire, but for now I’m taking a break.
Don’t get me wrong, despite my reserve I like the way Novik portrays Chinese dragon/human society, and from a couple of spoilers I’ve come upon other cultures it might be also interesting. But she deviates from what’s best in Temeraire far to soon (and in case of book 2 it’s just boring, even if we learn some interesting facts about China). If it happened after 5 books of Aerial Corps (there are many interesting characters there, human and dragon, and no sign of them for two books!!) adventures… heh.
But, for me, the selling point was a series of associations – Nelson, Napoleon, dragons, Hornblower, Sharpe… and I didn’t get enough of that. Maybe omnibus should cover more tomes? But I took a quick look at synopsis of book 4 and it seems they go to Africa this time… my break will be a considerable one.
I recommend book 1 to anybody who finds the idea of Napoleon with dragons awesome, whether or not to go any further – it’s for every reader to judge for him/herself.
Score: His Majesty’s Dragon: 7,5 Throne of Jade: 6 Black Powder War: 7