330 PAGES · £12.99
When in doubt, add a dragon. There’s something about the scaly mythical beasts we just can’t resist, and the latest fantasy to exploit the “draconian effect” is the debut novel from Naomi Novik. Pitched as a cross between Patrick O’Brian and Susannah Clarke, it’s an interesting spin on the historical novel that may be far from the lush strangeness of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but does spice up the Napoleonic Wars by adding dragons to the ranks of both opposing forces.
In the alternate 19th century where Novik’s novel is set, dragons are commonplace creatures whose relationships with humans have developed to the point where most large armies are now equipped with aerial units to fight sky-bound battles. Pulled unwittingly into this dangerous world is Will Laurence, a naval captain who liberates a rare dragon egg from a French ship, and unexpectedly forms a powerful emotional bond with the creature that hatches from inside, a dragon he names Temeraire.
It’s not the kind of bond that can be easily broken, so Laurence is forced to abandon his original navy career, losing his station in society as a gentleman, and joining the strange, isolated world of the Royal Aerial Corps. Encountering both danger and prejudice while learning the ins and outs of airborne combat, he and Temeraire eventually become fully involved in the battle with Napoleon, and it’s here that the novel is at its riproaring best, delivering a healthy dose of cracking adventure.
Trouble is, it takes a long time for this action to arrive, and while Novik has created a fascinating world, she doesn’t always exploit it to its fullest potential. There are occasional fascinating details (like an off-hand reference suggesting that the civilisation of the Incas actually survived the Spanish Conquistadors thanks to their breeding of dragons), yet much of the book avoids this “alternate history”, playing simply as an exciting Horatio Hornblower-style tale of a heroic young man and his dragon.
There’s plenty of detail in Novik’s depiction of the life of the Royal Aerial Corps, but she’s almost too accurate in capturing the social atmosphere of the time. With his firm naval discipline, Laurence is a model officer who doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, but sadly comes across as a stiff and starchy character on more than one occasion. It’s hard not to wish for a more rebellious hero who’d stir things up and defy convention, rather than play it by the book as Laurence does so frequently.
This unwillingness to rock the boat turns out to be the biggest problem in the novel, with the story progressing from Temeraire’s initial hatching to the final aerial battle with hardly a surprise or shock to be found. The bond between Laurence and Temeraire is affectingly portrayed, but never gets seriously tested, and the result is a story that lacks emotional punch – as demonstrated by a subplot involving a dragon neglected by his handler that’s far more touching than anything that happens to the main characters.
Despite this, and the sense that this is more of a scene-setter than a selfcontained adventure, Novik’s style is never less than readable, and she’s crafted a fun fantasy novel for people who don’t normally read fantasy novels. She’s avoided certain clichés, and nailed the Patrick O’Brian-esque atmosphere she was aiming for, but we’ll have to wait for volume two to see whether her world of dragon warfare can really stand the test of time.