The Temeraire Series by Naomi Novik

TemeraireBook 1: His Majesty’s Dragon
Random House, 2006 reissue
ISBN-13: 9780345481283
384 p.p.

Book 2: Throne of Jade
Random House, 2006 reissue
ISBN-13: 9780345481290
432 p.p.

Book 3: Black Powder War
Random House, 2006 reissue
ISBN-13: 9780345481306
400 p.p.

Book 4: Empire of Ivory
Random House, 2007
ISBN-13: 9780345496874
416 p.p.

Book 5: Victory of Eagles
Random House, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780345512253
384 p.p.

Book 6: Tongues of Serpents
Random House, 2011
ISBN-13: 9780345496904
368 p.p.

Book 7: Crucible of Gold
Random House, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780345522870
384 p.p.

Book 8: Blood of Tyrants
Random House, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780345522900
512 p.p.

Book 9: COMING SPRING of 2015, League of Dragons

Temeraire, Or Everything Good About Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction

I have previously reviewed a book series that was about dragons through a historical fiction lens and loved it, so it should not surprise anyone that I adored the Temeraire series that I have spent my summer and fall reading. What is surprising is that it took me so damn long to hear about them, and what is tragic is that I let this beauty sit on my bedside table for several months in favor of other books. If you like dragons, historical fiction, war dramas, Napoleon, or proper British gentlemen getting put in tight situations just GO BUY His Majesty’s Dragon IMMEDIATELY. You don’t even need me to tell you how wonderful it is—you just need to go experience it. So GO. NOW. It’s under “N” for Novik but also under the Best-Seller category and the New Releases—so you should stumble upon the series with ease now.

Unfortunately, you will be stumbling upon it easily because this epic is ending in spring with the upcoming release of the ninth—and allegedly final—book League of Dragons. I’ll allow for a moment of silence.

Ok, now a moment of excited screaming.

This series is tremendous and the fact that it is ending has all the usual emotional highs and lows that accompany a great series. At first, you are devouring the books at a rapid and almost insane pace (one of these 400 page monsters I devoured in half a day, and read half the next book in the same sitting) but as you reach the end of the line, you start slowing (I’ve been dragging my feet through book 8 since September 16th—for the record that moment on Goodreads says “I’m going to go into withdrawal with this series is over”). We all have been there (hello, Harry Potter nightmares about not liking the ending) and knowing that a beloved series is ending is both tantalizing but also heart-wrenching. I have a lot of questions I need answered with this final book but at the same time I can’t bear an end to the series.

All good things must end, of course, and since this is truly good I suppose it is better for it to end before it loses its charm.

Oh, who am I kidding? Temeraire isn’t capable of losing its charm.

We begin by meeting our reluctant hero, William Laurence, who is content with his lot as a captain in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars and does not anticipate even remotely where his life is about to go. His ship conquers a French ship that is transporting something extremely valuable: a dragon egg. A dragon egg that hatches on Laurence’s ship and produces a sleek, black baby dragon who immediately imprints on Laurence, much to his chagrin. Laurence names the baby Temeraire and takes on his care, at first being more upset at the loss of his old life than the start of his new life and it makes you want to throttle him. You have a dragon Laurence, it is time to start counting your blessings. But this new life in His Majesty’s Aerial Corps isn’t easy—a branch of the military that are social pariahs compared to their army and navy counterparts, they also have a markedly more relaxed approach to law and order. Laurence is scandalized to see that women are permitted to be captains (in fact, some breeds of dragons will only let a woman harness them) and also at what he considers informality bordering on rudeness. He immediately brings his own brand of regulation to the Corps and gains the respect that Laurence always seems to deserve: he is the most honorable man alive and this oozes through him in all situations.

But Laurence is secondary to Temeraire.

Everyone does dragons differently, Tolkien and Paolini (just to name two fantasy powerhouses) have done talking dragons and it is hard to set yourself up for comparison between them by entering the draconian arena. However, Novik holds her own. Novik’s dragons host conversation as if they are humans, and most times with the engaging honesty of a super-smart toddler. Dragons in Novik’s universe have the potential to bond extremely deeply with human captains; a binding love that creates sharp feelings of possessiveness and jealousy. The way that fairy tale dragons horde gold, these dragons horde their treasured humans… and gold. The presence of an aerial element to the Napoleonic war is compelling enough—adding thinking aerial assault vehicles that are also keeping an eye on their own personal prizes is addicting. These dragons desire wealth, fame and equality the way that humans do and Novik uses them as a vehicle to talk about inequality of minorities, women, social classes… anyone. There is a dragon for every conceivable genre of person—representing the Inca, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Russian classes (high and low), and the various degrees of the Napoleonic French (old blood and new). A key feature that threads through the novels is Temeraire’s awareness that dragons are treated better in some countries—and England isn’t treating him, or any dragon, as well as it could. He insists on being respected for the majestic creature that he is and often functions like a bull in a priggish, British china shop.

What is most endearing about these novels is the relationship between Temeraire and Laurence. It has so many shades—it begins in a very nurturing and dependent place where Laurence functions primarily as a parent to Temeraire’s rather oversized child. The world is new to Temeraire and Laurence has to decide what the dragon needs to know and what is better off being censored—his choices are rather remarkable and because Temeraire grows so rapidly, this parent-child relationship takes on a vaguely ridiculous proportion. Temeraire becomes aware of both his own size and Laurence’s relative weakness and this makes Temeraire possessive and protective. For all that, Temeraire is a heavyweight dragon (between 20 and 50 tons) but turns into a kitten around Laurence, fretting and worrying that he has caused Laurence some upset, rubbing up against him for love, trying to cuddle despite the fact that he could easily crush his beloved human. Dragons, like humans, have a wide range of intelligence and Temeraire happens to fall in the extremely smart category. The benefit of this is that Temeraire has a complex and wonderful contribution to the plot. His view of the world is fresh and new like a child’s but he approaches the world’s problems with the dry logic of a super-genius. Temeraire simply doesn’t understand why Laurence would be upset if women were captains of dragons as long as the women were good captains. When Temeraire questions Laurence about sexism, Laurence suddenly finds himself unable to explain his own prejudices (this is a brilliant move on Novik’s part and one she uses often). Temeraire doesn’t understand slavery, economic disparities between classes, animal cruelty, or racism.

In the eight books of the series, Novik takes us from England to France to China to Australia and South America—we travel to India through the Middle East into Africa and even get to meet Americans. This series truly shows a little bit of the entire globe—a tour de force for a book set in this time period. Adding to the difficulty of what she did, Novik remained true to travel timelines: most of the books are spent in travel and these books span years. You forget that in 400 pages while you have been enjoying the wonders of the Orient with Temeraire that Laurence has been growing more and more homesick—because it has been more than a year since he was home. Novik weaves a timeline that seems accurate but never feels weighed down by the sheer amounts of time we spend in transit. It bears stating that as soldiers, Temeraire and Laurence fall prey to the old army slogan “Hurry up and wait”—we spent a significant amount of time in the books setting up the pieces on the chessboard but not necessarily moving them around. The battles read like real battles: oddly short for how much they alter the course of history.

What I love about Novik is that I never remember that this is a fantasy series by a female writer—it simply doesn’t read like it. She writes a male narrator with great verve and realism. Perhaps it comes with the territory of writing for a women’s journal but I find myself asking whether or not it matters that the books are written by men or women or if there is a deficit. When I walk through the fantasy aisle at my local bookstore I know there is a deficit. Fantasy books by women writers err on the side of bodice rippers and erotica (not that I have a problem with the fact that women write erotica, I have a review in the wings for Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series) and the “serious series” go to the men. Powerhouses in fantasy are typically male: Lewis, Tolkien, Paolini, Erikson, Gaiman, Martin—where are the ladies? When I’m reading Novik, I totally forget that there is a gender line in fantasy—these books are just plain ol’ fashioned good reading and you don’t find yourself wondering who wrote it. You just get upset because you’ve read 400 pages and there was a cliffhanger and you now need to get to Barnes and Noble before it closes at 9pm (and it’s 8:41).

Beyond just her mastery of fantasy is her mastery of history. Novik really set the bar high for herself and made jumping over it extra hard by combining fantasy with historical fiction. If she doesn’t treat the dragons well, if they don’t feel genuine, she will lose all the fantasy readers. However, the history buffs can’t feel like she is skirting around the intricacies of this particular time period. Luckily, Novik seems so at home with both dragons and Bonaparte that she never tires of diving into the best parts. I feel like I’ve re-learned years of AP European History classes through her eyes and the changes she has made to history are really interesting: she changes whether people live longer or die sooner, she alters the path of colonialism and it all seems extremely plausible (even with dragons). One particularly fascinating change is that the conquistadors are stopped by the dragons so the Incas survive the 16th century and maintain a powerful empire (powerful enough to court some very important European allies). Also, instead of being colonized, Africa emerges as an unlikely pillar of strength worthy of fear and respect (and really pissed off at Brazil, of all places). I have had a blast meeting this new Napoleon and this alternate path of his—and as book 8 leaves off in the Russian front you can imagine my intense impatience for book 9 this spring.

What I am also excited for is the brave new world of the high-budget television miniseries. Peter Jackson bought the film rights to Temeraire around the publication of the fifth book, but he has publically stated that he’s tentative about making full-length films. The Temeraire books are so rich with detail and those details build on one another from book to book and to cut the detail for the sake of making “good time” on a full-length film would be criminal. However, would Temeraire survive a full-length film, given that the books are not WHAM BAM ACTION PACKED? Jackson thinks they would be better served by a miniseries, which even in 2008 was a risky business. Sure, HBO had The Sopranos but that was a show and movie production companies weren’t investing in miniseries as valid venues for stories. But we now live in a time where TV and Miniseries are getting the same budgets as blockbuster movies (just look at how wildly successful Game of Thrones is becoming). With the last book forthcoming we could really begin to see Peter Jackson openly developing these books into a miniseries that would serve Novik’s dedication to detail and give us our dragon fix. So fingers crossed that this series starts a new life in a new medium in the coming years—it really deserves the recognition.

***

Naomi NovikNaomi Novik grew up in Roslyn Heights Long Island and cites an early love for Tolkien and Austen with her inspiration for Temeraire. She studied English Literature at Brown University, and holds an MA in Computer Science from Columbia. She participated in the design and development of the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide. She currently lives in Manhattan with her husband and daughter.

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