His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
Fantasy (2006 - 353 pp.)
His Majesty's Dragon, the debut novel by coder-turned-author Naomi Novik, is exactly what it sounds like. The very short version is that the series (this is Book 1) takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, with this book occurring in 1804-1805, except there are dragons. Understandably, this is not garden-variety historical fiction. The good guys, for our purposes, are the British, who include Captain Will Laurence and his dragon Temeraire.
My first reaction to His Majesty's Dragon, which may or may not be appropriate, is that the dragons are extremely cute. Laurence agrees, tending to Temeraire even when other riders do not and reading Temeraire books Laurence would not normally find interesting. Other dragons, like Levitas and Lily, exhibit a similar combined animal-humanness that remind us of whenever our cats talk. The bond between Laurence and Temeraire defines the book, and I suspect* defines the series. I also like that Laurence retains friends in the Navy, like Lieutenant-turned-Captain Tom Riley, so we can see the war unfold on a grander scale.
Novik nails her adventure theme and her battle scenes. The parts in between bring up the endless debate regarding whether "Show, Don't Tell" is literary gospel or merely a highly bendable rule. Novik is fond of telling anything besides the Laurence-Temeraire bonding moments, the Laurence-other characters bonding moments (don't look away, Roland), or the times when dragons very excitingly blast everything in their paths. Dragons are capable of fire, acid, supersonic roars, all sorts of claw and bite maneuvers, and anything else you could imagine from a creature large enough to have an entire crew strapped to it. They are air forces 110 years before air forces. The way Novik calls them "the Aerial Corps", combined with the inherent social interactions of people living with highly intelligent flying lizards, make the book's flavour. I like her summaries of the interim parts of the book, but I could have gone for a few more man on the street pieces about dragon care.
Something I would have loved to have seen more of is a true prologue to the series of Temeraire as a baby. Although we see Temeraire's hatching, and his rearing up to gargantuan level, he is highly articulate out of the egg and enormous within weeks. It would have been nice to have seen dragons take longer to grow up, or at least be so addicted to having books read to them. I admit this is tough given the extremely short timeline the characters work with, but then maybe a few more pages could have been put into each month. I would read a 400+ page book in order to have more scenes of a baby Temeraire learning English and learning the value of books rather than having those qualities magically gifted to him.
* * * * *
His Majesty's Dragon fits into a recent explosion of dragon fiction. There are a couple non-literary examples that came to light for me almost immediately: hit movie How to Train Your Dragon and Sim City-meets-Pokémon world-building app Dragonvale.** Each of these franchises has different colours of dragons, each features dragons interacting with people in surprisingly benign ways, and each focuses on how the dragons are just so unbelievably adorable.
This brings me to a more extrinsic point: dragons may be causing the new Nature Fakers Controversy. In short, that early 20th-century literary debate was between the science-backed people who claimed that animals should be represented as realistically as possible and the sentiment-backed people who claimed that animals should be represented according to how they feel. This dispute was not limited to academic literature; Jack London was accused of, as one might say in 1906, nature fakery.
As someone who grew up reading Beatrix Potter in box set form, and who has only studied the sciences a little at the post-secondary level, I naturally side with the latter. Nonetheless, many celebrated figures disagreed with me, and even then-President Theodore Roosevelt*** gave his opinion on the issue. The issue was never completely resolved, although the science side seemed to win out... until the '80s happened.
This raises the question of whether legions of sickly-sweet dragons are suitable for young children. Are we making monitor lizards too desirable? This is an issue Barack Obama needs to address during his last year in office. With the 2016 election coming up, it truly can't wait.
Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 2
*I haven't read any of the other books in this series yet. I suspect I'll read about one per year, given that the "Book a Month" format makes me relatively exclusive.
**Are apps italicized like books now? Is an app at the level of a book, rather than a "Chapter"? I don't know. It's a whole work, though, so why not.
***I consider Teddy to have been the greatest President of the United States ever. Admittedly, it's not for commenting on the Nature Fakers Controversy - more for mediating the Russo-Japanese War settlement and trust-busting - but still, you have to admire a President who takes so much interest in his nation's intellectual cultural debates.