Just finished this wonderful 9-book series by Naomi Novik, which brilliantly combines Hornblower-style naval traditions with Pern-like dragon fantasy. The story represents a twist on Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and O’Brian’s Master and Commander books, which are both wonderful classic fiction series written in the early-mid 20th century about life in the British navy circa 1800 (the Napoleonic Wars). The two works have been mimicked in SF&F many times over the years, to great effect in:
What’s really interesting about THIS take on Hornblower is that it throws dragons into the mix. But they’re not JUST dragons — it’s a completely unique take on the idea. It starts with the standard Anne McCaffrey’s Pern template (dragons matched with riders at hatching, bonding for life), but it adds a really interesting development: These gigantic dragons carry crews and operate like vessels at sea, complete with guns, bombs and even boarding parties.
It’s a really clever idea because of course it sets up the story, in which Captain Laurence (who I must say is a lot more like Jack Aubrey than Horatio Hornblower) gets roped by circumstances into bonding with a dragon in the opening scene. If it were a small dragon, of course this would be a storytelling disaster, resulting in the good captain removed from anything like a British Navy setting. But since the dragons are huge and carry crews, this meshes perfectly with his skill set.
Anyway, it’s not just a clever concept. These books also feature a rapidly-developing geopolitical story. The 19th century setting allows for the subtle alteration of a world awakening to grand-scale morality and becoming more culturally connected, and it’s all reflected perfectly in the innocent eyes of the dragons (“Pray tell me Laurence, why do they transport these other human beings against their will? And who is behind this East India company, after all?”). Dragons, like many humans caught under the bootheel of early empirical politics, have been dragged into the wars and calamities of humans and forced to consider the benefits of membership in a larger society (and what might happen to them if they don’t). But unlike humans, they don’t necessarily have to put up with it!
The villains of the story are far from black and white. Even Napoleon, for all the evils he creates, comes across as a man of integrity. This version of the early 19th century world is positively fraught with heightened ethical dilemmas. Gender and racial inequity are merely the first two cars in a veritable freight train of oncoming moral consequences.
Novik persues all of this with a wonderful flair for both history and military tactics. This took me completely by surprise after my earlier reading of Uprooted, which disappointed me as mostly feminist-eco-romantic nonsense (though still fairly entertaining). I admit I’m showing my action-oriented preferences here, but I’m not entirely comfortable with this, and I by no means suggest that Uprooted not be read — on the contrary, I’m a big believer in stretching and challenging one’s personal comfort zones, and see this as a primary benefit of reading science ficiton and fantasy.
Alternate history fans will enjoy this series as much as pure-fantasy readers. The latter’s enjoyment comes in spite of the lack of magic and the real-world setting — this remains as much a pure-fantasy story as any Dragonriders volume. And yet the recognition, and indeed careful attention, to history is very real. The first indication that I could detect of alteration (aside from the presence of dragons throughout history, of course) is the survival of Nelson at Trafalgar.
This presents an interesting aspect to the story that should not be overlooked. Indeed, the world was a fascinating place in 1805, poisoned right on the verge of major scientific and cultural discoveries that would shape the next two centuries. Novik’s central theme here is “What if dragons had been present? Might things have turnedout a little differerntly?” This is well worth exploring, and nine books presents more than enough opportunity to do so in tremendous, fascinating detail.
A final thought about the audiobook version of Temeraire. These were wonderfully read by Simon Vance, and I found myself taking advantage of Amazon’s “for another four dollars” pricing to pick up both audio and ebook versions of all nine titles, which helped as I read much of these while on the road and in places and times where headphones were not appropriate. But I must say that Vance’s reading brought wonderful life to these characters, with every single dragon receiving a subtle, consistent, and unique voice. Both Laurence’ and Temeraire’s voices will stay with me for a long time, I think.