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Temeraire, by Naomi Novik

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Temeraire, by Naomi Novik

Post by Carla » Tue December 30th, 2008, 4:32 pm

Edition reviewed, Voyager (HarperCollins), 2006, ISBN 0-00-721909-1

Temeraire is a historical fantasy, with the premise that flying dragons were used as an aerial strike force during the Napoleonic Wars. All the main characters are fictional.

Will Laurence, captain of a Royal Navy ship, captures a French frigate and finds that it is carrying a dragon’s egg that is just about to hatch. A dragon has to be harnessed immediately after hatching, or it will turn feral and be useless for military service. The person who harnesses the dragon will be its handler for life, as dragons are reluctant to accept a change of handler once the initial bond has been formed, and will have to join the Aerial Corps as an aviator. Aviators are held in honour, since dragons are a key weapon, but they live apart from the rest of society and are not considered respectable. So Will Laurence is initially horrified when the newly hatched dragon spurns the man chosen to be its handler and takes a fancy to him instead. His strong sense of duty compels him to harness the baby dragon and give it a name - Temeraire - even though this means he has to give up his beloved ship, his family’s approval and his prospective wife. Fortunately, Temeraire proves to be more than adequate compensation. The excitement of training in aerial combat and finding their place among the other dragons and aviators proves a rewarding and fascinating experience for them both. And finally they are called upon in a desperate attempt to foil an airborne invasion, where Temeraire’s extraordinary powers are revealed for this first time.

Temeraire is a rattling good yarn with a fair amount of action and some very appealing characters. Indeed, almost all the main characters are remarkably nice people; I can only think of one really unsympathetic character (an aviator who neglects his dragon). Although the aviators are initially suspicious of Laurence, as an outsider entering their closed society, they mostly accept him and get on very well together with almost no petty infighting or backbiting. Perhaps this is due to the beneficial influence of the dragons, who are universally kind, courteous and well-mannered. One wonders why the dragons aren’t running the world, as they’d probably make a better job of it than the humans. Temeraire in particular is a very attractive character, intelligent, affectionate, willing, considerate, eager to please and utterly without guile. No wonder Laurence gets so fond of him. His first word, minutes after hatching is “Why...?”, and he retains this curiosity about the world throughout the novel. I find this appealing in itself, and it also provides an excellent world-building device, as Temeraire has to learn everything about the world and Laurence has to learn to adapt to the strange society of the aviators and the techniques of dragon combat. The reader therefore painlessly learns along with them as they explore their new environment.

The plot has many separate strands: Laurence and Temeraire have to get to know one another; Laurence has to adapt to his new life and social position; they both have to learn about aerial combat; there is a minor espionage sub-plot; a splendid illustration of an abusive relationship; a mystery over Temeraire’s breed and why his egg was aboard the French frigate in the first place; the military build-up to the climactic battle scene; and a tangential romantic encounter for Laurence. This makes the book feel very much like the first in a series, as there is clearly huge scope for further exploration.

There are some nice flashes of humour, mostly of the understated variety - for example, the scene where Laurence finds himself delicately explaining about whores to Temeraire, or the scene in which dragons turn out to be a more appreciative audience for music than London high society. And the scholarly Appendix on the different breeds of dragon, written in the style of an 18th-century paper to the Royal Society, is great.

I found the historical setting distracting and annoying, a problem I often have with historical fantasy (more on this in another post). I can’t suspend my disbelief sufficiently to accept that dragons fought at the Battle of the Nile or that Nelson survived Trafalgar, and so every time a historical event or person was mentioned it detracted from the story. This was further compounded by the repeated references to the aerial invasion force setting off from Cherbourg and requiring an easterly wind to carry it to Dover. Sorry, but the last time I looked at a map Cherbourg was a long way west of Dover. An easterly wind might be handy for invading America from Cherbourg, but for invading Britain a southerly would be more useful and would take you to the Isle of Wight. An invasion force arriving at Dover on an easterly might have started from Calais or Dunkerque or Ostend, but not from Cherbourg. Once I decided to read Temeraire as pure fantasy, set in an invented world that just happens to share some names with ours, these annoyances disappeared and I could get on with enjoying the story.

One difficulty I had was in fitting the social structure of the novel into the world as described. Longwings are the most important strike dragon, since they can spit poison. They can only be handled by women. Now, this implies to me that every battle since the time of Henry VII (when the Longwing breed was first developed, according to the Appendix) would have had at least one female war hero. For example, Longwings (and presumably also their female captains) are said to have played an important role in defeating the Armada. Is it really credible that the presence of female aviators would have stayed such a secret for 300 years that Laurence had not even suspected their existence until he joined the Aerial Corps? And surely the presence of women in a key military role would have had some effect on the evolution of the role women expected to play in the rest of society? Yet the social norms outside the Aerial Corps are those of Jane Austen’s world, with women who appear to have little career choice other than finding a husband. I also found it puzzling that the dragons, who are clearly at least as intelligent as the human characters and enormously stronger, routinely obey humans. Why do they take orders from people? Why do they let humans dictate their breeding? Perhaps this will be picked up on in later books in the series, as Temeraire shows attractive signs of independent thought.

Many thanks to Marg, Nessili and Joy Calderwood, whose enthusiastic reviews convinced me to give Temeraire a try!
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Post by annis » Tue December 30th, 2008, 5:27 pm

I enjoyed 'Temeraire", but I know what you mean about the historical context being a distraction, Carla. In this case something which is pure fantasy fits more comfortably, like Anne McCaffrey's "DragonRiders" series. The social structure of the world of Pern makes more sense and the fact that dragons and their riders are bonded for life at the dragon's hatching makes the control issue more believable.
That said, Naomi Novik's books are very entertaining.

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Post by Ludmilla » Tue December 30th, 2008, 9:05 pm

[quote=""Carla""]Once I decided to read Temeraire as pure fantasy, set in an invented world that just happens to share some names with ours, these annoyances disappeared and I could get on with enjoying the story.


Thanks for posting your review, Carla.

Your quote above is really the key to enjoying these, I think. I, too, felt if you squinted too hard at the social structure and some of the worldbuilding, you'd find weaknesses you could tear it apart with. Nevertheless, I've enjoyed the series so far. In spite of some weaknesses in each book, I've found at least a few things (either new characters, or a new overarching plot development) that have kept me curious about the next one. I don't think I'd want to read them all back-to-back. Reading one every 6 to 12 months is like awarding myself with a fluffy treat. That seems about right for me.

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Post by diamondlil » Thu January 1st, 2009, 2:21 am

Here's my review of this book!


I don't read a lot of fantasy, but this book was attractive to me for a couple of reasons. One is that it has been getting a lot of positive reviews, and the second is that it could almost be classified as historical fantasy. Novik has taken the events of the Napoleonic wars, and just tweaked them, by giving the combatant countries an air force, not made up of planes or balloons, but rather of dragons. One of the reasons I don't read a lot of fantasy is that I don't really enjoy the world building that sort of has to happen to establish the rules for the society, hierachy, social rules etc. By only having to tweak the world as we know it a little, it means that the story can get going a whole lot quicker and for me that is a bonus.

When Captain William Laurence engages in battle with a French warship, he is kind of surprise that the crew fights so fiercely given that they are practically starving, and there doesn't seem to be any great treasure or anything on board, until they come across a dragon egg...very close to hatching.

The thing with dragon's eggs is that they must be harnessed and bonded with their rider pretty much immediately because otherwise they will go feral or will not accept another handler - a waste of a terribly precious resource, particularly in these troubling days. It is therefore agreed that the officers on board will all draw lots to see who the unlucky handler is going to be. It is considered unlucky because to be a dragon handler pretty much means leaving life as you know it behind, to live in the dragon coverts where they are trained and cared for. Gone are the chances to be courted in society - where naval officers are welcomed in society, dragon handlers are pretty much shunned. Also gone is pretty much any chance of marriage, family, and gaining advancement and material wealth.

So when the dragon shuns the chosen handler and instead attaches himself to Laurence, he is quite upset but realises that he has no choice as a man of great honour but to do his duty for his country. And yet, as he gets to know the dragon he has chosen to name Temeraire, he finds that he enjoys his new life- including their many conversations about life, reading books together, hunting, and eventually when they are bought back to England for training, getting ready for their coming life together during their manoeuvres. One of my favourite conversation between the two was when the normally unflappable Laurence had to explain to Temeraire why the men from the dragon corps visit the nearby town to visit the local prostitutes...very funny. I did find Laurence's habit of calling his dragon "My Dear" a little affected but I got over it eventually!!

The thing with Temeraire is no one really knows what kind of dragon he is, and so they don't know what his special skill is. They know he is a Chinese dragon but that is about as far as it goes. With his superior speed and intelligence he is still a very valuable asset and when his weapon is revealed it is very key in the battle against those fiendishly clever French men under the rule of Napoleon.

The other interesting dynamic in the book is the relationship between the other flyers and Laurence. It is very unusual for someone to swap from the Navy to the Flying corps (and vice versa), and Laurence brings with him very different ideas of how his crew should be run. It is interesting to watch both the other flyers and Laurence begin to get an understanding and working together. One of the more interesting relationships is between Laurence and a female officer by the name of Roland. There is a good build up in the relationship, but I can't help but feel that the author backed away from building the relationship up completely - but maybe that is just the romance reader in me talking!! I hope to see this relationship develop further in the next books in the series.
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