His Majesty's Dragon
His Majesty’s Dragon is straight fantasy, no romance whatsoever, but it does have, at its heart, a very lovely and emotionally rich relationship between a man and his newly hatched dragon.
Captain Will Laurence and his naval crew capture a French frigate in what Laurence assumes to be a routine skirmish. What’s hardly routine is the cargo the frigate is carrying: a dragon egg. Dragons are rare and powerful creatures, used by both the English and the French in the ongoing war, so a dragon egg is a prize indeed. Unfortunately, this egg is about to hatch, and no one on board knows much of anything about rearing a young dragon.
Shortly thereafter while the HMS Reliant is still at sea, the egg does hatch, and the dragon rejects the member of the crew selected by lot to put it in harness. Instead he decides he prefers Laurence. In that moment Laurence’s whole life changes as he transitions from career navy captain to member of the Aerial Corps/dragon handler, for once a dragon allows itself to be harnessed by a human, a bond is forged forever, and all other considerations and the comforts of a normal life fly out the window. Laurence accepts all of this with resignation as he places the harness on the dragon he names Temeraire. What he doesn’t realize is how important Temeraire will come to be to him.
While dragons are fantastical creatures, Novik’s introduction of them as fighting weapons in the Napoleonic Wars never feels artificial or unbelievable. Perhaps this is because the rest of her historical backdrop is so well done. Laurence is in every way a man of his time and a man of his career. His outlook, his decisions, and his prejudices all stem from being a man of good family and good upbringing. Temeraire, of course, takes him by surprise, mostly because he didn’t know how intelligent and social dragons can be. He is stunned to find out they can talk, and even more astonished to watch Temeraire outpace him intellectually. But the biggest surprise is how soon he becomes emotionally attached to his winged, scaled protégé.
The best parts of His Majesty’s Dragon are the quiet scenes between Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence has never been anti-social, but his position as navy captain prevented him from having very close friendships with his shipmates. His relationship with his own father is tepid at best, so when he is thrust into a mentoring role, he doesn’t quite know how best to go about it. But his kind and gentle nature comes to the fore, and he finds that caring for Temeraire is rewarding in and of itself.
Temeraire, for his part, becomes fiercely devoted to Laurence, far more devoted, in fact, than he is to his given mission: defending England. While he is able to talk and understand things upon hatching, Temeraire is childlike. As the book progresses, he goes through more adolescent stages, and it is interesting and often touching to watch him with Laurence. He is a fearsome creature, but emotionally vulnerable to this one man. It is fortunate for him that Laurence is so honorable. Some dragons in this parallel universe do not have it so good.
The book’s first two thirds involve Laurence and Temeraire getting to know each other and then learning to operate within the Aerial Corps. I found both of these to be very enjoyable. The last third was their introduction to warfare, and my interest waned here. Novik does a good job narrating her battle scenes and using them to reveal things about her lead characters, but action scenes, and particularly battle scenes, just aren’t my thing. I was tempted to skim in places and probably would have if I hadn’t been reading this book for review.
Strangely enough, while reading this, I kept comparing His Majesty’s Dragon to Wen Spencer’s Ukiah Oregon series. While on the surface they are little alike, this series being historical and concerning dragons and the other being contemporary and concerning aliens, the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire is as warm and supportive as the one between Ukiah and his mentor, Max. And both Novik and Spencer do a wonderful job with world-building and suspenseful action scenes.
His Majesty’s Dragon is the first book in what will be, at the very least, a trilogy. Throne of Jade, Novik’s second book in the series, is already out, and the third will be released in late May. So fans of Laurence and Temeraire will be able to immerse themselves in this new and very exciting parallel universe right from the very start. That’s good news!