Today's book review is His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik.
This book's up for a Hugo this year, so I guess pretty much everyone who's at all interested has already read it.
This is the first book in the Temeraire series. At this point, to the best of my knowledge, there are two more books in the series; I have no idea if there are more coming. But, though it's part of a series, the book stands alone well enough; it's not, as sometimes happens, the first arbitrary chunk of a larger story chopped off at a random or even deliberately frustrating point. The basic concept of the series is the fight between Britain and Napoleon, with dragons. As alternate history, it's silly, and as high fantasy, the world isn't really solid enough to be examined too deeply, but as whimsy, it works. The author's bio says that she's seriously interested in the Napoleonic period, so the historical background is probably very good, but I know so little about the period that I can't tell. Except for the dragons and the obvious implications of dragons, there's nothing that I can recognize as not being period. And it's a story that appeals so strongly to my own inner child that I'm not sure how meaningful it is that I loved it. (In fact, I couldn't put the doggone thing down; I had a lot of other stuff I needed to do yesterday, and instead I was reading.) The (human) characters are kind of odd, but they actually fit my vague impression of the time pretty well, and for me at least, their behavior and actions does shine light on our modern society, even though the exact way they live their lives is really quite strange.
But mostly, it's about dragons. A version of dragons that are some of the most appealing since Pern.
Definitely fluffy, but delightful, and not completely without some real meat. Fast and engaging, but probably not enduring prose for the ages. 9 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
Will Laurence is the captain of a British frigate that has just defeated a French ship. The French ship was seriously undermanned from a hard voyage, and they fought much harder than was to be expected when they obviously had no chance. When they take the prize, the logs have been dumped overboard, but there's a dragon egg on board. The ship's surgeon knows a little bit about dragons, and reveals that the egg is likely to hatch quite soon. This is a big problem, partly because the ship doesn't have proper supplies, equipment, or expertise for raising a dragon, but mainly because of the attitude the navy has to dragons. Dragons are the basis for the air force, there's a war on, and the English face a big disadvantage in the dragon department, so a new dragon is vastly important to the country, but naval officers don't think of the dragon corps as at all appropriate for an officer and a gentleman. Once committed to a dragon, an aviator -- as dragonriders are called -- is pulled out of normal society far more completely than naval officers, and unlike the navy, a dragon is a lifetime commitment. All the officers view the idea of harnessing the dragon with horror. In the end, though, when the dragon hatches, it has no interest in the hapless victim of the short straw, and goes for Laurence instead. Laurence names the dragon Temeraire, and the surgeon identifies him as a Chinese Imperial, second only to the Celestial among Chinese dragons, so he's a very valuable prize. Laurence is devastated at first, but by the time the ship makes landfall at Madeira and the air force tries to assign Temeraire to a trained aviator, Laurence realizes that, rather than being happy to have his life back, he is devastated at the prospect of losing Temeraire, and when Temeraire refuses to accept the change of handler, captain and dragon touchingly vow to stick together. Still, Laurence is very nervous about being trained, and the air force is very nervous about bringing in an untrained aviator for such an important dragon. When Laurence and Temeraire arrive at Loch Laggan for their training, they quickly figure out why: first, the person running the show isn't human, it's a 200 year old dragon. And second, some of the dragon officers are female, and they mix as equals with the men. This is because the most militarily valuable line of English dragons, the Longwing, will only accept female handlers. These two factors are so alien to the standards of the outside society that they would turn England upside down if they were known, so they're kept quite secret.
At the beginning of the training, Laurence and his new colleagues very wary of each other, and the one person who seems to reach out to Laurence is a courier named Martin. Laurence starts playing chess with Martin and forming a friendship, but then he realizes that Martin has a very bad attitude toward his dragon Levitas, treating him with contempt rather than love. Laurence realizes that much of the reason he's being treated so coldly by the others is because they've ostracized Martin for his terrible attitude, and when he stops associating with Martin he starts to get on better with the others. Laurence and Temeraire's training proceeds as quickly as possible, and favorably. The first action they see is when they have to rescue a dragon who was injured on patrol. Laurence proves that he is both brave and an effective commander when he manages to prevent the stricken dragon's harness from failing (which would have caused several riders to fall into the sea). In the pressure of this action, Laurence and Granby, the current candidate for the position of his lieutenant, learn to respect each other (they got off to a very rocky start when Granby was cold to Laurence because he was a friend of the officer who tried to take over Temeraire, and Laurence took offense and reacted with naval discipline) and bury the hatchet.
Soon, Temeraire is integrated into Longwing Lily's wing. They're sent off to help patrol the Channel so that one of the other, experienced Longwing squadrons can go help Lord Nelson wipe out the French navy, but they're waylaid by a sneaky French patrol. Lily is injured, but due in large part to Temeraire's fighting capabilities, the attackers are driven off and they make it safely to Dover. There they encounter Choiseul, a French defector, who is at first a valuable addition to their patrol, but he turns out to be a traitor. He first seduces Lily's captain, Harcourt, who is very young (since Lily hatched years before she was expected to), and then uses her trust to try to kidnap her. Laurence and Temeraire foil the plot and finally force a confession from him. He was actually trying to arrange to steal Temeraire, who was supposed to have gone to Bonaparte personally. Apparently, he's convinced that England will fall in a few months, and further, he's convinced that Bonaparte will execute his dragon for treason, which drives him to this mad scheme. All the dragons are very upset in sympathy with the French dragon Praecursoris when his traitor captain is hanged.
Finally, the climactic battle is set up when Martin, the slovenly dragon-abuser, returns from a scouting mission on an injured Levitas. It seems Boney's been building aerial troop transports -- huge wooden boxes that four dragons can carry a thousand men at a time across the Channel. All the naval action, and the dragons pulled away from defending England to stop Villeneuve from bringing up French naval support for a sea invasion, is a strategic diversion for the now-foiled surprise aerial invasion. Laurence is getting Temeraire's crew together, but Hollis, his ground crew chief, is with Levitas. It seems that Levitas is dying, and the lout Martin is in the club drinking. Laurence grabs Martin by the collar and forces him to give his poor dragon some praise and comfort before he dies. Laurence solves the problem of the air force having to give Marin another dragon who's just hatching by recommending Hollis for the promotion. And then the wind changes to be favorable for the invasion. With most of their heavies off with Nelson, and with the French having far more dragons than England to begin with, the English defenders are hopelessly outnumbered, but they fight bravely anyway. Temeraire manages to damage one transport, but a couple of them land, and then, suddenly, Temeraire (who has just come into his full growth) discovers that he has a breath weapon after all. He puffs up and roars and sonically smashes one of the transports out of the air. And then he goes after the flagship transport, which might even have Bonaparte himself on board, and damages it enough that the rest of the invasion force retreats, with few enough landed that they can safely be defeated. Temeraire is not actually an Imperial, he's a Celestial, meant as a personal gift from the Emperor of China to the Emperor Napoleon. This foreshadows trouble with the Chinese in the next book, because it is against the all-important Chinese custom for a Celestial (the rarest of dragons) to be anything but the companion of an emperor -- which Laurence certainly is not. But England is, apparently, safe from Napoleon for now.