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His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
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Book Name: His Majesty’s Dragon
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher(s): Del Rey (US) Harper Voyager (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Alternate History
Release Date: March 28, 2006 (US) January 3, 2006 (UK)

Napoleonic Wars? Check.

Age of Sail naval culture? Check.

Hints of Asian civilizations? Check.

Dragons? Check.

The only thing that could make me want to read His Majesty’s Dragon more would be an Ominous Dark Lord bent on world domination.

Oh, wait, there is some short megalomaniac mentioned often in Naomi Novik’s alternate world novel.

In all seriousness, I’ve been an admirer of Napoleon for thirty years (and today, while listening to the audiobook, I realized those three decades were almost twice as long as his actual reign in France), and the widely-held view that he was short is actually the result of vicious smear campaign orchestrated by the British.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can get on with this review.

We all know that during the Age of Sail, Britain was king of the seas with its highly professional navy. It seems only fitting that Novik’s re-imagination of a world where humans have tamed dragons, since at least Roman times, is told through the eyes of a British ship captain, Laurence. Maybe it is the fact I listened to the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Simon Vance, but I found that Novik successfully captures the narrative voice we’ve come to associate with the Age of Sail. It is with Laurence’s authentic internal monologue that she draws contrast between the regimented conventions of the navy and the more freewheeling culture of the Aerial Corps.

Born to a well-to-do family, Laurence loves his life as an officer in the respected navy; but when his ship Reliant captures the French frigate L’Amitie, that life gets flipped upside down. In a secret compartment in her hold, the Amitie carries a dragon egg, leading to some delicious world building. It turns out that in this alternate Earth, breeding and hatching dragons is a complicated affair. A newly-hatched dragon needs to be imprinted on a human handler, or else the opportunity to train them is lost. To Laurence’s dismay, he’s the new mom to Temeraire, a dragon of unknown origin.

What ensues for much of the book is Laurence’s induction into the Aerial Corps. He’s a fish out of water, getting used to new customs and conventions, not to mention different strategies and tactics. For example, while not completely egalitarian, the Aerial Corps accepts women by necessity: England’s best breed of dragon will only bond with females. It does take time for him to change widely accepted views of women.

I was in awe of the sheer creativity that goes into crafting an early 19th Century air force, and Novik’s use of tension to keep me engaged in the extensive training scenes, until we experience a couple of skirmishes, and finally end with a grand battle. Novik does a wonderful job of integrating a fictional dragon riding corps into real historical battles.

On the other hand, I couldn’t quite picture how the rider crews all sat on a dragon. Also, the sheer number of unique character names, dragon breeds—both French and English, and to some extent, Chinese and Japanese—was a little hard for me to follow, despite having been able to keep track of Middle Earth’s family trees, Westeros’ knights and lords, and all the colors and activities of the fish in Dr. Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

Another issue I have with the story so far is the portrayal of dragons. I felt that in Novik’s novel, they behave somewhat like man’s best friend (with the exception of Temeraire). Perhaps it can be explained by humans having bred dragons for certain qualities. After all, in real life, animal husbandry tends to result in a dumber, more docile version of the original wild animal (my wife’s friends have said she has trained me well).

It does make for some very heartwarming and disheartening scenes between dragon and handler, and one of the most emotional scenes I have read in a while is the death of a dragon whose arrogant handler has never really appreciated him. However, I always envision dragons as being smarter than humans. Perhaps I have been influenced by Smaug, Drogon, the plethora of wyrms from Dragonlance and Dragonriders of Pern, and Puff.

Finally, I felt I really had to suspend my belief with regards to Napoleon’s military genius, or lack thereof in His Majesty’s Dragon. In our history, he was such a master of the Operational Level of War—maximizing all the tools available to him to control time and space through communication and delegation. With his emphasis on speed and mobility, and the benefits dragons would confer, I can’t believe that if he had inherited a dragon corps that was already superior to England’s, he wouldn’t have captured the British Isles in months.

All that said, His Majesty’s Dragon was an immensely engaging and satisfying story, with an authentic narrative voice and creative worldbuilding. I will assign Novik an acid-spitting Longwing Dragon, and rate the book an 8.213 on my secret and utterly objective scale.

Side Note: After listening to gravelly dragon voices in Eragon and Chronicles of the Black Gate, I was very happy to hear them with somewhat normal voices in this audiobook.

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