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The Napoleonic Wars With Dragons, But Good: Naomi Novik’s Temeraire Books

“Laurence, is there something particularly interesting in Dover, and might we go and see it? So many of our crew seem to be making a visit.”

“Oh, dear,” Laurence said; he felt rather awkward in explaining that the main attraction was the abundance of harbor prostitutes and cheap liquor. “Well, a city has a great many people in it, and thus many entertainments provided in close proximity.”

“Do you mean such as more books?” — a dead-standard conversation between dragon and man in His Majesty’s Dragon

The first of Naomi Novik‘s Temeraire books, His Majesty’s Dragon, was presented to me by a friend six or seven years ago with a one-line verbal summary: “It’s the Napoleonic Wars with dragons… but it’s good.” Eight books later, that’s still the way I most often summarize the story for new readers, but I usually add a few other details, like the fact that Novik’s dragons are sentient and highly verbal, characters in the truest sense, and that the books, in addition to being an alternate history of the Napoleonic wars, are also a rip-roaring travel adventure and an exercise in ever-expanding worldbuilding. The premise might sound a little silly on first hearing, but the tale is well worth a further investigation.

I’ve been doing a reread of the series for the last few weeks, in anticipation of the ninth and final book that will hopefully come out sometime next year, and I’ve been pleased to find that the books hold up just as well on a second read as they did the first time through.

Without diving too deep into the spoiler weeds (always a difficult thing when you talk about a story that stretches out over time), I can say that this series focuses on the adventures of Captain Will Laurence, of His Majesty King George III’s Aerial Corps, and his dragon Temeraire. When we meet Laurence in the first book, he’s a naval captain who’s just won a fierce battle against a battered French frigate, and Temeraire’s egg is found aboard the captured ship. The egg’s seen as a great boon for Britain, because every dragon that can be brought into the service puts them one step closer to defeating Napoleon. But unsurprisingly (since this is a novel and all), things turn out to be a little more complicated than that…

Temeraire and Laurence are in the service, and so as you’d expect, there is a fair of large-scale combat (usually at least a few big action sequences per book). But I don’t read these books for the action; I read them for the characters and the world-building.

Novik’s cast is extensive, and in what feels like one of the more realistic elements of her extended plotting, characters often disappear for a book or two and then reappear when their travels or service bring them back across Laurence and Temeraire’s path. The human characters, mainly military sorts, certainly have their moments, but my real affection, and I suspect the affection of many people who enjoy the series, is for the dragons. As the quote above suggests, Temeraire is both extremely intelligent and naive about human affairs in a way that’s consistently charming, and the other dragons have distinct personalities that are equally appealing. Each dragon in His Majesty’s Aerial Corps has a handler who stays with him or her basically from hatching until death (dragon or, more frequently, human; the question of what to do with a dragon whose captain has died comes up often enough to count as a recurrent plot point), and the relationships between dragons and their captains might be my favorite part of the character development in these stories.

The worldbuilding, though, is why I keep coming back to the series. Over the course of the eight books I’ve read, Laurence and Temeraire have literally traveled over most of the globe — and as in Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books, although they encounter historically accurate settings and characters, everything is also a bit different from what historically-minded readers might remember from their lessons. Sure, the dragons of the Far East that we hear about in legend are very different from the dragons of Europe, but what kinds of dragons might you expect to find in sub-Saharan Africa, or in Australia, or the Americas? And how would symbiotic relationships between dragons and humans might change the course of human history?

I’d never claim that these books are high literature; they’re most definitely written in the style of a fun romp around the world. The human characters are a little flat in places; the combat scenes can sometimes feel a bit repetitive; and I find it hard to worry too much about whether Napoleon is going to take Britain, which leaves me wondering how history buffs would feel about the conflict being made into the Macguffin for Temeraire’s adventures. But I’m going to finish my reread, and I’ll definitely be buying the last book when it comes out. And if you like dragons, or adventure tales, I’d recommend picking up this series. It’s the Napoleonic Wars with dragons… but really, it’s good.

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