Naomi Novik’s World of Dragons

Naomi Novik’s World of Dragons
by Theresa Bane

A few years back I was sitting next to Jim Butcher at Dragon Con. He was autographing books for fans and having a good old time chatting it up with each and every one of them. I was sitting next to him in an assistant-like fashion. dragon, dragons, dragon books Taking the stack of books from the next person in line, neatly printing their name on a post-it and sticking it out of the title page for each book. It made life just a little bit easier for Jim and was my good deed for the day. One of the folks in line was a buddy of mine, a lovable scamp we all call Pirate Glen (but that’s a tale for another blog…). He and Jim were talking about books that they each read for pleasure and they both had commented on the “Temeraire” series of books by Naomi Novik. When asked my opinion on the books at that time I had nothing to contribute because not only had I not read the books, I had not even heard of the author. Upon uttering that statement, every jaw at Dragon Con dropped. I was ordered by Jim to go and read the first book in the series as soon as possible, if not sooner. After the signing, Pirate Glen took me by hand and led me to a book dealer at the con where I picked up a copy of His Majesty’s Dragon the first book in the series. There was much rejoicing.

As a chick I am genetically predisposed to not read military novels. Odd considering that my father is something of an expert on ancient Rome. Ask him a question about “the empire” and I swear it’s like having David Attenborough read “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” at you. I also have one brother who is an authority on the American Civil War and another brother who can just about name every single person involved in WW2 from four star generals right down to the civilian corps. The world of the “Temeraire” series occurs during the Napoleonic era, and opens in 1791. Very exciting for me because all I knew going into the books was that Napoleon brandy was supposed to be particularly delicious. Oh, and that there have always been dragons in the world.

Novik, a chick herself, did a total bang up job writing this book. It is not a love story. It is not filled with the soft sentiment that one might expect from a woman writing about war and killing and people dying. She wrote a honest to goodness warstory, her main characters are a male dragon and his male handler/friend William Laurance. They are guys, they talk and walk and act like guys. Very British and proper noblemen, but guys nonetheless. I really enjoyed the first book of the series tremendously. I was probably the last person in North America to read it, but if you just woke up from a coma or have recently come back into the country, I highly suggest reading His Majesty’s Dragon. And I further suggest that you be a good sport and buy it through this link right here: His Majesty’s Dragon

Novik’s world has dragons in it. Lots and lots and lots of dragons in it, 51 by my O.C.D. count. Stands to reason when you really think about it. Man domesticated the horse and bred them into shapes that were specifically useful for jobs that he needed done. Clydesdales and Frisians have nearly the same DNA as Shetland ponies and Thoroughbreds but they are very easy to tell apart at a distance. Just as there are horses of varied lineage, so too are there dragons who are the result of cross breeding. There are also several species of feral dragons as well as water dragons, creatures sometimes called sea monsters.

The main character of the book, Temeraire (TEM-er-air) is a very special and extremely rare breed of dragon known as a Celestial. Only members of the Imperial Royal family of China are permitted to be companions to them. These dragons are unique not only because they have the ability to hover but also because they have an ability called “Divine Wind” It is essentially a sonic attack that vibrates and shatters apart anything in its path of destruction. It is extremely vicious against wood. Counting Temeraire, there are only eight of these dragons in the world.

Temeraire has dragon friends because in the Novik world dragons are not only domesticated but free thinking sentient beings (yes, the issue of slavery comes up). There is Lilly, a pale blue Longwing that spits acid; Arkady a grey and motley brown feral; Maximus a bright red and orange Regal Copper; Felicita a striped Yellow Reaper who was promised to be bred to Temeraire; the cigar smoking Messoria, another Yellow Reaper; Nitidus a silver grey Pascal Blue who has a nervous disposition until he is airborne and in combat-aloft he is known for his bravery in attacking dragons outside of his weight class and doing so impressively.

My favorite dragon in the entire series is a poor little creature named Levitas. His is a Winchester, a common breed of dragon in the British Isles, and like most of his type he is a messenger, carrying his captain with important documents and information where ever he needs to be. Levitas is small for his breed, not even as tall as a draft horse (think mini van) but is a particularly fast flyer. I won’t get into his role in the book for risk of spoilers, but I love this little guy!

All around the world there are different species of dragons and the author has made it really easy to keep track of what dragon comes from where: French dragon breeds all have very French sounding names and are physically different looking than the dragons encountered in China. Naturally, all of these dragons have Chinese names as well. All British dragon breeds are some sort of descriptive noun and all their dragons have very Roman sounding names, like Maximus, Gladius, Immortalius, and Prolixus. Temeraire is the only dragon in the entire series that does not have a traditional name. His handler, Laurence, named him after a British naval ship he once served on, and oddly enough the word ‘temeraire’ itself is French (Yes, this becomes relevant in later books). Novik also explores the ways the different Nations look at, perceive, relate and treat their dragons. The “civilized” nations of the world such as England, France and Germany honestly treat their dragons like great big meat eating talking horses. They are tools used by the military, no different than Francis the Talking Mule was during WW2. In fact in England most of its population has never seen a dragon unless it was flying way up high. Civilians have a habit of fainting when they see a dragon up close and personal. By contrast, in China Dragons are in a lot of ways like big people, buying and selling goods at the markets, going to school and enjoying the civil liberties that people have. Over in America the Indians revered their regional dragons in a mutual combination of respect and worship. In Africa dragons rule their tribal nations and are considered as the reincarnated souls of their ancestors, revered as gods and catered to. Of all the numerous dragon species encountered only the dragons of Africa are organized and live in dominance over the humans, they hate outsiders and will join up with other tribes to drive off invaders. Fortunately, they are not globally conquest minded or this would be a very different series of books.

The history of man and the dragon is very well thought out. Throughout the book there are conversations between Temeraire and his handler, Laurence, where it is explained that even before a she-dragon raised Remus and Romulus that man had long been companion to the dragons. Throughout the series in fact she inserts little historical events and mentions the dragons that were there. Basically, her world’s history is parallel to our own except that dragons were just inserted into it. Its kinda cute and perhaps the only “girly” thing about the books. And by “girly” I mean not so well thought out.

Personally I feel that a world with dragons such as hers would not have developed exactly as our world without dragons. For instance, I seriously doubt that Christopher Columbus would have still been the guy who discovered America because dragons would have been flying there and back. Numerous times it is stated that Longwings can stay airborne for about 14 hours with one flap of their wings. Although they may not have had any particular desire to go exploring and looking for new lands, their human companions, if not the military who used them, would have. The world would have been a much smaller place a lot faster. Imagine what the history of the world would have been like if Alexander the Great had a Regal Copper such as Laetificat, Requiescat and Maximus rather than his much loved black war horse, Bucephalus; If Marco Polo had a Longwing such as Conterrenis, Excidium, Gentius, or Mortiferus. The Roman emperor Caligula made his favorite horse, Incitatus, a senator, if he had done likewise for his dragon companion I suspect that a dragon would have not been led willingly back to the barn after the Emperor’s assassination but rather retained his seat and defended his title and position. There is even a section in one of the books where older dragons are describing the earth as a globe to younger dragons; would the Church have tried to burn them at the stake as well as they did so many astrologers and pioneering men of science?

I also don’t think that Novik is a great tactician. In my humble opinion, she does not use dragons to their best military advantage. Weapons such as bombs are seldom used in warfare, armies opting to let their dragons clash mid air and claw it out. It makes for a good read but it is hardly logical from a militaristic point of view. Also for some reason the navy has all the political sway and the dragon corps is looked upon as the red headed step child of the military. In a world of dragons and untamable sea monsters would a sea going navy be all that important? Temeraire prefers his food cooked by a chief, reads and writes in several languages, does advance calculus in his head, and has better social skills than most people I encounter in the mall. How is it that for thousands of years not a single dragon has said “Hey, why am I putting up with being treated like a government mule?”

All in all, I very much enjoy the style of writing that Novik uses. I love her language. It is very reminiscent of Bronte and other such period writers. The characters are likeable and believable enough, I actually cried big fluffy tears when one of the dragons (I won’t say who) died. The history of the world and its current state of events I had a hard time choking down, but admittedly that may be because I come from a background that is overflowing with historical know-it-alls (sorry Daddy, I love you).

If nothing else read the first book. I did and have no regrets in doing so. I promise you it is good, it is enjoyable, it is memorable but mostly, it is filled with dragons.

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Theresa Bane

Theresa Bane

QrT – Theresa Bane Vampirologist and one of Jim Butcher’s Asylum Inmates.
Theresa Bane