I just got done with Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon. I picked it up on Alyssa Rosenberg’s half-recommendation. It seemed like it would hit all of my buttons. I’m an unabashed lover of kitschy dragon fiction, and historical fiction makes me feel intelligent and stokes my ego (when it’s done well, because I understand the references. When it’s done poorly, because I feel superior to the author). A dragon-filled book of military historical fiction? I’m on board!
HMD is set in England during the Napoleonic Wars. We meet Will Laurence, captain in the Royal Navy, as he captures a French frigate with a valuable cargo: a dragon egg. In this alternate history, dragons function as the aerial arm of the military, complete with ground crews and different breeds suited to strafing, bombing and dog (dragon?) -fighting. Will harnesses (imprints) this mysterious dragon, which he names Temraire. This book (the first in a series) deals with the personal fallout of that action, and Will and Temraire’s training regimen in the Dragon Air Corps.
The book is slight, with lean plotting. I found it pretty entertaining and extremely easy to read. I also appreciated that Novik flirted with some of the conventions of the genre, while sidestepping most of them. The mere fact that our protagonist is in his late 20’s means that there is a whole host of adolescent-centric character arcs that we don’t have to read again.
The flip side of that ease and directness of plot is that it frequently feels like it’s underwritten. I don’t believe that longer is always better (although I am slogging through the Baroque Trilogy, so I must be some kind of masochist), but there are several sections that, had they been fleshed out a little more, would have served a more cohesive, satisfying, and substantial whole.
I also found the speculative/alternate history aspect of the book fairly superficial. The characters speak in an unobtrusive old timey formal style (as opposed to, say, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, a novel in which everyone speaks like Joseph in Wuthering Heights), and Novik name-checks a handful of historical figures, but otherwise the characters and plot could have been set in any fictional world. Or Pern.
The most surprising thing to me was how disturbed I was by scenes of dragon aerial combat. The book sets them up as these sentient war beasts, and I couldn’t help but think of war elephants. The scenes aren’t particularly graphic, but the flippant cartoony descriptions almost made it worse for me.
I would probably recommend reading the book if you had it in your hand and were boarding a flight, otherwise I’d skip it. I’m a sucker for multi-volume sci-fi/fantasy stories, yet I don’t think I’ll continue with the series.