If I had to summarize this book in five words or less, they would be: Horatio Hornblower with dragons.
This book was fun. It’s not deep literature, but it is very entertaining, especially if you’re like me and love historical settings and fantastic trappings. I love losing myself in the world of a story, and seeing what ordinary life is like in a setting that is nothing like our own world. When history is blended in with fantasy, it just makes the world all the more fun, because it’s possible to become immersed in the magic while still getting a feel for the time period (if the work is done right).
The story begins with Captain Will Laurence of the good ship Reliant capturing a dragon egg from the French. Faced with the prospect of a dragon hatching at sea, the officers do their best to ensure that the best man on board will be the one chosen to harness the dragon- a role that will necessitate the man who does so leaving the Navy and joining the English Aerial Corps.
What’s interesting is that this possible fate is not one any of the officers are happy about. Most fantasy stories today automatically assume that being a dragon rider would be uninhibited awesomeness, but I liked that Naomi Novik didn’t go that route with this story. When Laurence realizes that he is the one who will become the dragon’s handler, he isn’t exactly thrilled. While he appreciates his relationship with the newly hatched Temeraire and is very fond of him, he’s very nervous about leaving behind his ship and his crew for a life as a member of the Aerial Corps.
My favorite aspect of this book was the details of how the dragon handlers lived and how the dragons were utilized in battle. The care with which Novik described the different breeds of dragons, the training exercises, and how the dragons were harnessed and how their crew would be positioned helped make this world more believable. Many of the practical implications of making dragons an inherent part of the military were explored, such as the necessity for the dragons and their handlers living in a remote part of the country. Which makes sense, as dragons eat a lot, take up a great deal of space, and- well, are dragons. They could be dangerous.
This remote living was all the more interesting because it did a lot to explain why the majority of the people, while fully supportive of the Aeria Corps, weren’t quite sure what to make of them. It’s not regarded as quite as respectable as some other branches of the military, and I found it a nice touch that being a dragon handler wasn’t just a great new life; I appreciated that there were some very tangible downsides.
This book also had a couple downsides of its own, namely that of the characters. Laurence and Temeraire didn’t have as much personality as I would have liked; especially in regards to their interactions with each other. While I liked that Laurence did come to appreciate Temeraire and the bond between dragon and handler, I felt he became attached to the dragon too quickly, given how much Temeraire costs him in terms of his career and his position among his family and acquaintances. Their friendship felt a bit too easy, without enough exploration of the difficulties they might have had in their initial partnership. Laurence didn’t strike me as a man who forgave easily, which made his rather quick attachment to his dragon a bit unbelievable for me. I would have liked to see more of a struggle between Laurence’s love of the Navy and what his duties as Temeraire’s handler require.
I also felt that some of the most interesting characters- Harcourt, Berkley, and Roland- had their presence undermined in favor of showing Laurence and Temeraire interacting when there really wasn’t much about their relationship that I hadn’t known already. Certainly it’s a minor nitpick, but I found Laurence trying to adapt to the easy manners and customs of the Aerial Corps as a Naval officer much more interesting than his interactions with Temeraire.
But since this is the first book in a series, I have hopes that my nitpicks will see themselves rectified later. And even with those details bothering me, I still had a really good time reading this book. It was a blast to see dragons incorporated into the life and military of the Napoleonic wars, and I hope not only to go on with this series, but to discover more alternate history that makes the fantastic seem so tangible.