'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Review: Temeraire

Temeraire, (also published as His Majesty’s Dragon in the US) is the first novel in the nine-book Temeraire series, by author, Naomi Novik.

This novel was highly recommended to me by a wonderful teacher-librarian, who knew I was seeking a novel with depth, intrigue and dragons, and immediately retrieved this novel for me from her Young Adult shelves.

Whilst Temeraire is listed for a general audience and has broad appeal to adults, it is also suitable, engaging and appealing to young adults and adolescents.

Before the first page has turned, the reader is drawn into the early 1800s, on a British Royal Navy Ship, mid-way through a battle.

We meet Captain Will Laurence and see that he is honourable, intelligent and battle-wise, with a crew prepared to fight for their Captain and Country.

Temeraire is set during the Napoleonic Wars, except in this re-telling there also exists extraordinary Air Forces, consisting of squadrons of dragons, each with distinct ancestries and specialised capabilities, accompanied by their handlers, known as Aviators.

Amidst this alternate history, as the tide appears to be turning against the British, Captain Laurence and his men capture a French frigate and soon discover why the previous occupants were so reluctant to surrender. They were carrying a precious cargo; a large dragon’s egg, which, unbeknownst to the British Naval men, was of an exquisitely rare ancestry and was destined for Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

Before they can begin planning the transfer of the delicate egg, the signs of imminent hatching appear, spurring Laurence and his men into sudden action.

Although the Naval men have had limited association with the apparently undisciplined and oft-times scandalous Aviators of the Aerial Corps, Laurence and his men know enough of dragon lore to understand the disastrous potential consequences if a dragon does not immediately bond to a handler, and they are acutely aware of the value an additional dragon could bring to the depleted British forces at this time.

To ensure that the dragon will be presented with a handler immediately upon hatching, the men draw straws, as none wish for the role, and all know that the life of an Aviator is wild and solitary, without the comfort of a port to call home. As befits Laurence’s honourable nature, he includes himself in the drawing of straws and experiences a wave of relief tinged with guilt, when a young crew man draws the short straw, as the egg cracks. However, the hatchling rejects the timid candidate, and, rather than losing a valuable dragon for Britain, Captain Laurence presents himself, whereupon an immediate bond is established. The Captain must rapidly name the dragon and the name ‘Temeraire’ pops into his head, a real British Royal Naval Ship of the time.

Novik employs many features common to dragons in literature, including intelligence, rapid growth, carnivorous and immense appetites, and development of powerful bonds between humans and dragons, which is satisfying to a reader who enjoys this genre. However, Novik takes this latter aspect further than some others, establishing great depth and detail in the characters of both dragons and handlers, particularly the protagonists, Temeraire and Laurence.

As Temeraire grows from a hatchling to a young adult dragon, Novik carries readers through the tumultuous times faced by many adolescents - the frustrations of insatiable curiosity and a rapidly expanding knowledge and changing body, but as-yet limited life experiences. Temeraire’s intelligence is soon revealed to be vast, outstripping some of the other dragons within weeks of hatching, and his appearance differs from other dragons he meets, leading him to feel separate and isolated, until he slowly comes to understand and accept his uniqueness.

Laurence’s character also develops throughout the novel, as he realises that not all who appear to be gentlemen are worthy of the title, and the majority of Aviators are not reluctantly bonded to the Aerial Corps, as he had supposed, but willingly engaged and eternally committed to their dragons. Laurence’s patriarchal views, consistent with those of British military of the times, are challenged and smashed when he learns that many of his fellow Aviator Captains are female, as are many of the fiercest warrior dragons, and eventually he comes to realise that he would willingly follow, lead or accompany them in battle.

Laurence and Temeraire demonstrate genuine flaws in their characters which lead to complex dilemmas, yet these never detract from their fundamentally honourable natures. As Temeraire matures, Laurence recognises that their relationship is far removed from that of ship and Captain but has become one of equals.

Temeraire is a detailed and satisfying novel, with eight further books in the series.

Title: Temeraire (also published as His Majesty’s Dragon)
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, $22.99
Publication Date: August 2007
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978000725871
For ages: 14+
Type: Young Adult