Three centuries after Henry V’s campaigns the English and the French still can’t seem to put their neighbourly disputes behind them. Someone always seems to be playing loud music at night, or refusing to trim a hedge that blocks next door’s sunlight. Little seems to have changed as Captain William Laurence and his crew board a French ship in the early pages of Naomi Novik’s ‘Temeraire’, which is set during the Napoleonic conflicts. Yet Novik has created an exceptionally inventive novel of alternate history that revitalises the genre of war stories, set during Napoleon’s advance on Britain. By taking the most entertaining elements of the great naval stories and fantasy novels, then mixing in components from stories of bomber crews she pushes all three genres in new directions, and enables readers to delve deeply into the psychology of her characters.
Captain William Laurence is making a name for himself as a naval man, until he captures a French prize containing extraordinary cargo. On board the frigate is a box containing a dragon’s egg, almost ready to hatch, and Laurence must find one of his crew to imprint the dragon on birth so that it can be used in the service of the British Air Corps. The crew draw straws reluctantly; though the Air Corps may be respected for their bravery naval officers do not envy their way of life. A young crew member is chosen, but when the dragon hatches it is Laurence who instinctively imprints him, naming him Temeraire. By attaching himself to the young dragon Laurence cuts himself off from society, because of general snobbery about dragon riders, and must end his engagement. However he embarks on the most significant relationship of his life, with his dragon.
Novick writes physical, fast battle scenes, which are essential in any novel about the fighting forces. The reader’s attention is grabbed by the fierce descriptions of the sheer power of dragons fighting, but the author also pays great attention to the passionate activities of the human crew. She creates the close, intensity of the traditionally described naval battle with the added emotions of fighting to save a living ‘ship’. The reader is presented with two battles at the same time, as the human crew try to save their dragon and destroy another, while the dragons defend their crew and fight for their human’s cause. The descriptions of battles are powerful and frenzied, despite the crew’s control:
“ ‘ Get a bomb up here,’ Laurence snapped to Granby; they would have to try and hurl one into the Chevlier’s belly rigging, despite the danger of missing and striking Temeraire or Lily. Temeraire kept slashing away in a blind passion, his sides belling out for breath; he roared so tremendously that his body vibrated with the force and Laurence’s ear ached with the force of it. The Chevalier shuddered with pain; somewhere on his other side, Maximus also roared, blocked from Laurence’s sight by the French dragon’s bulk.”
Novick is also a skilled world builder. She has adapted history to include dragons, that feel like a natural addition to the world. She has also invented a strong bond between the main characters which never feels forced, or like blind adoration. Laurence has his regrets about abandoning his old life, and Temeraire sometimes feels unhappy about the pain he may cause Laurence, but they work hard at their friendship so that this, and the natural bond they feel overcomes these problems. One of the most enjoyable parts of this book is seeing the level of closeness between the dragons and their riders, especially when reading about the everyday adventures that cement Laurence and Temeraire’s friendship, like reading and swimming.
Novick obviously plans to explore issues about the ethics of war, especially the use of the concepts of loyalty and duty to keep troops fighting, throughout this series. This will be another welcome, modern addition to the story of the fight against the French. The British resistance is back in fine form, but with dragons involved patriotism may not be as simple as it once appeared.