Wednesday, January 11, 2012

An Alternative Air Force: His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

The Napoleonic wars form the backdrop of many classic works of historical fiction. Epic battles, perilous sea voyages and political machinations lend themselves easily to countless adventures, several of which have translated to screen adaptations in recent years – think Master and Commander, or Horatio Hornblower. The era seems to provide no shortage of inspiration to the budding writer. One seems hard-pressed to find anything that would make an already fascinating period of history more exciting.

Well, what about dragons?

At first, this idea conjures up unsettling memories of unfortunately gimmicky dragon movies (I’m looking at you, Reign of Fire). The notion of playing this premise straight would seem even more outlandish, but Naomi Novik's His Majesty’s Dragon does just that – and does it well. Trying to weave the iconic fantasy beasts into such well-trodden literary ground seems a gutsy choice for a first novel, but Novik has managed: first published in 2005, it is the first book in the Temeraire series, which has now reached six novels and will last for at least seven. While perhaps not the most challenging read, the novel still manages to pose enough questions and provide enough seafaring fun to please both fans of the fantastic and historical fiction buffs with a quirky imagination.

His Majesty’s Dragon introduces Will Laurence, a Captain in the British Navy. When his ship captures a dragon’s egg from a French vessel, Laurence watches it hatch into Temeraire, a black dragon with both a hunger for battle and a curious intellect. The pair gets recruited into the Aerial Corps, a military division where each of the massive winged beasts are crewed by several avaitors, and take to the skies in combat with Napoleon’s fleet.

His Majesty's Aerial Corps
The world that Novik imagines explores the varied consequences of a world with dragons intermingled with human cultures. In His Majesty’s Dragon we learn that certain breeds of dragons will only take female captains, prompting a shock to the rigid gender politics of early nineteenth century Europe. Later books deepen this exploration, taking Laurence and Temeraire on voyages to lands beyond the British Empire. Several cultures outside of Europe treat dragons as more than simply beasts of burden, according them a unique place in society. This alternative world presents a conflicted moral landscape, in which humanity is confronted with another sentient species and must address questions of equality, personhood, and the right to freedom in an age of oppression and bloodshed.

In both premise and execution the series starts off well, though perhaps taking itself a little too seriously out of the gate. With each new book, Novik’s writing grows more confident and more compelling, however, and she’s clearly developing as a writer. Her engagement with the time period evokes memories of Patrick O’Brien or C.S. Forester, though Novik’s novels have a somewhat lighter tone and, unfortunately, characters that don’t quite feel as nuanced. They still kept me interested, however, and it would seem I’m not alone: in 2006, Peter Jackson purchased the film rights. One of the highlights of His Majesty’s Dragon comes in its viscerally exciting battle scenes, and I’ll be honest: the idea of a massive sea-to-sky battle on the big screen has me reaching for both my popcorn and (with much less enthusiasm) my wallet.

I wonder if Hollywood might suspect this.

Well, whether a blockbuster movie franchise comes of it or not (Jackson has more recently hinted at the possibility of adapting it for a large-budget television miniseries), His Majesty’s Dragon and the Temeraire series succeed easily on their own merit. It’s an adventure with some excellent historical thrills, a fantastical edge, and a keen authorial voice that had me devouring several volumes at a stretch. When the next one lands, I’ll happy forgo the popcorn, more than satisfied with a comfy chair and a good book.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently interning in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

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