Fantasy fiction is overrun by dragons. The fiery beasts have become a way to spice up an otherwise standard book — just add dragons. When I first heard about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — the Napoleonic Wars, a la Hornblower, except with dragons — I sighed to myself: hasn’t this been done before? Isn’t this tired out?
But I should have taken the example of two other books I’ve looked at here on the Gutter: Butler’s Fledgling, which took a new look at vampires, and Walton’s excellent Tooth and Claw, which appeared to be a Victorian novel with dragons plopped in haphazardly, but at closer appearance had some rationale for it. A careful plot and some excellent storytelling will take you a long way, even if you’re reusing common props like vampires or dragons.
Novik’s first book was called Temeraire (retitled as His Majesty’s Dragon in North America). British Navy officer Captain Laurence finds a dragon egg aboard a French ship; the egg hatches soon, and Laurence is chosen by the new dragon as his aviator. Napoloeon tries to invade, and the two are on the front line since dragons are bloodthirsty and mature quickly. Temeraire is a remarkable dragon; soon he finds out that he is a Celestial, the rarest breed of Chinese dragon, and one reserved for the Imperial family. Why did the Chinese send this egg to Napoleon?
Throne of Jade, the second book, picks up that question. It opens with a furious Chinese embassy — the Emperor’s brother in fact — demanding the return of Temeraire. After some heartbreaking attempts to separate the two, the Chinese finally realize that Temeraire will not leave Laurence. The middle of the book deals with the long sea voyage to China with man, dragon, Chinese diplomats and British crew, and the last third or so takes place in China itself.
I love how Novik knows what to do with a sequel. Since writers write sequels all the time, you’d think it would be an important and/or common skill. Not so, in my bitter experience. Novik brings back much the same characters, but gives them a new adventure, and some new places to go. The first book was a pretty standard adaptation of Hornblower into a fantasy novel, if well-written. Now this book ventures into new territory, and this ambition is warmly welcomed.
Novik includes a bit more exposition than the book I looked at last time, Buckell’s Crystal Rain. But it’s all from Captain Laurence’s point of view, which gives it an intriguing twist. He cares about naval developments, his own sense of honour and how he’s treated by other officers. He seems to know a lot about dragons already, and he doesn’t tell us the information in a condescending way. He just does his stuff: harnesses up his dragon and goes to war, and details follow almost by accident — which is of course the hardest way to do it.
It’s also Laurence’s point of view that lets Novik navigate a fine line between historical accuracy and modern sensibilities. As I see it, there’s not really such a thing as a “historical novel” — no writer has a time machine to go back and find out what it was really like, and current audiences might not like the result. So the result is inevitably something more like a “historically-flavoured novel”. But the opposite is not necessarily true: since it’s impossible to get perfectly right, why bother at all? Well, lots of reasons.
The issue at hand in Throne of Jade is the treatment of women. Captain Laurence’s society doesn’t have any women in the navy or positions of power. But as it turns out, that extra bit of fantasy, the presence of dragons, lets Novik sneak women in: the breed of dragons known as Longwings will only fly with a female rider. The aviator corps have no choice, since Longwings are a key military asset, but they keep it secret from everyone else. Laurence is shocked and appalled at first, but he comes around. In this way, Novik gets to have a reasonably accurate portrayal of womens’ roles in a specific historical era, while keeping some modern sympathy for the main character.
A related matter is slavery. The book takes place in 1806, just before the push to ban slavery happened in our version of British reality. Novik uses this to good effect, since the ship has to stop at a slave port for supplies. Temeraire is busy observing everything that happens and draws some ready parallels to his own situation. Once they arrive in China, Temeraire sees how much better dragons are treated there than back in Britain. It adds some depth to all of the peril and action. Yes, dragons are bloodthirsty and good fighters, but do they deserve to live subordinate to human fears and duties?
So, an ambitious book that is simultaneously a worthy sequel and an exciting story of its own. The only question now is: will the next book, called Black Powder War and already on bookshelves, live up to the billing? The signs so far are good.